In 1968, a 15-year-old Black teenager checked himself into a St. Louis hospital. Months later, in 1969, at the age of 16, he died of complications related to HIV, later confirmed in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association. His name was Robert Rayford, and as of now he is the earliest identifiable person to have lived with HIV in the U.S. Little else is known about him, beyond the fact that he lived with his mother Constance and his brother George in a house on Delmar Boulevard—a street now known as a major dividing line between the city’s wealthy white residents and its poorest Black citizens.
Fifty-one years after his death, with most people unaware of his story, Lois Conley, founder and executive director of The Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis, is honoring Rayford by inviting residents to learn about him and explore the ongoing relationship between HIV and the St. Louis region’s African-American community. The project, called Impact HIV/AIDS, includes an exhibition this winter and the creation of a Black AIDS archive to be housed at The Griot.
The aim of Impact is to create a homecoming around the virus, in which a welcoming culture around HIV is created and cultivated within the Black communities of St. Louis so that residents can share the impact the epidemic has had on them, and—as activists, artists, caretakers, doctors, nurses, teachers, AIDS service organization employers, researchers, survivors, and witnesses—the impact that they have had on the epidemic. For more than a year, Conley and the Impact team have been collecting local stories and ephemera that tell the story of HIV among the city’s Black residents.
While Rayford’s life takes a special place within Impact, it is the stories collected from the community that are the main focus. Some of the many highlights of the exhibition include historic AIDS awareness posters distributed by the Red Cross and created by artist Damballah Dolphus Smith Jr., who died in 1992 with HIV; the personal archives of activist Philip Deitch; and ephemera from the organization Blacks Assisting Blacks Against AIDS, a program of Williams & Associates.
Artist Katherine Simóne Reynolds created portraits for a series of interviews I did in the summer of 2019 with Black women in St. Louis responding to the AIDS crisis in the present; these portraits are also featured in the exhibit.
I interviewed Conley, care worker Elaine Gibson, activist Kneeshe Parkinson, and educator Joan R. Ferguson about their work and Rayford for TheBody; the interviews follow this introduction. What emerges from the conversations is a tapestry of care and concern, and a variety of responses to Rayford’s influence within the contemporary moment. For some of the women, Rayford’s story is one that must be better understood to best see the present reality of HIV in St. Louis, and in Black America. For others, there is a feeling that his life is in the past, and that focusing too much on it can distract from the lives of people living with HIV now, who already fight to be seen.
Beyond Rayford, what they all agree upon is that the impact of HIV, past and present, cannot be denied. They see this impact in their lives, and in the city that they call home.