Public art honors HIV caregivers
A public art project celebrating individuals who have worked to ease the suffering of people living with HIV and AIDS is taking shape in the heart of Washington’s gay community.
An excerpt from "The Dresser," a Walt Whitman poem about tending to soldiers wounded in battle, is being carved in the granite wall of the Dupont Circle Metro station. A dedication for the project, which also will include a second poem by Howard University Professor E. Ethelbert Miller around a nearby bench, was held over the weekend.
The project was the initiative of District of Columbia Council member and Metro board member Jim Graham. Graham served as executive director of the city’s Whitman-Walker Clinic, which cares for people with HIV, from 1984 to 1999, and was its volunteer president for four years before that.
Graham said the engraved lines were meant to pay tribute to people who came forward to help cope with the crisis when the AIDS epidemic first hit. There was little understanding then of what was making people sick and little federal support for efforts to cope with it, he said.
The city’s first AIDS forum was held in April 1983, and 1,100 people showed up, Graham recalled.
"The people who showed up became the volunteer buddies, lawyers, social workers, all manner of caregivers," he said. "Many of the people who volunteered themselves became sick and died."
Barbara Chinn, who today directs Whitman-Walker’s Max Robinson Clinic, was among those who helped mobilize an effort to deal with the crisis in the early days.
"You would respond if someone needed someone to sit with them, if there was someone who needed to be fed, to hold their hands in their last days," Chinn said.