Exhibit Honors Atlanta's Black AIDS Activists Organizers Hope Event Catalyst for Creating Museum

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Basinger, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- Mona Bennett never thought her work to stop the spread of AIDS would earn her a place in a museum.

The Louisiana native got involved in AIDS prevention and education activities in the mid-1980s, when the disease was still a mystery to most scientists.

"I was in theater growing up and I had a lot of gay male friends whispering about this thing that their friends were dying of," she said. "It just made me pay attention."

Over the years, Bennett's outspoken promotion of free condoms and needle exchange programs for drug users earned her a reputation as one of the region's most tireless health-care crusaders.

Even her trademark denim hat, covered in condoms and political buttons, has become part of the South's AIDS lore.

A trio of Georgia-based non-profit groups recently selected Bennett as one of 10 people honored in an exhibit titled "From the Beginning: African-American Heroes and the AIDS Epidemic in Atlanta."

The collection features members of Atlanta's black community who are or were AIDS activists, volunteers, health care providers.

Organizers hope the event will serve as a catalyst to create the South's first museum dedicated to the documentation and study of how AIDS has affected the world, both socially and politically.

"This exhibit is a demonstration of what the museum would do,'' said Jim Struve, a board member of Positive Impact, which is working with AIDS Survival Project and AIDS Treatment Initiatives to develop the museum.

Current plans would house the museum in Atlanta, inside the very building occupied by all three non-profit groups.

Jeff Graham, director of AIDS Survival Project, said the group estimates the museum would have a yearly budget of nearly $500,000 and would produce between three to five new exhibits each year.

"All exhibits would be mobile and reproducible,'' Graham said. "We see them going on to places like corporate lobbies, shopping malls, churches and other service organizations.''

As new exhibits are created and installed in the permanent structure, older ones would circulate throughout the nation, he said.

Fund raising for the museum will not officially start until Graham, Struve, and Guy Pujol, director of AIDS Treatment Initiatives, are able to bring on someone to manage the project.

"From the Beginning'' was chosen to be the sample exhibit because of the organizers' ties to Atlanta, where nearly 16,000 AIDS cases -- or 66 percent of all cases in Georgia -- have been diagnosed since 1981.

"The people in the exhibit were active in [combating] the AIDS epidemic early on and haven't gotten a lot of recognition,'' Struve said. …