City Commissioner Clayton Lopez speaks at the Key West AIDS Memorial for the city’s annual World AIDS Day remembrance on Dec. 1. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly

The AIDS epidemic had a devastating, and outsized, impact on the tiny island of Key West, where more than 700 friends and neighbors died in just a few years. 

The community pauses every Dec. 1, to commemorate World AIDS Day and honor the local lives that were lost. This year was no different. During a candlelit procession from city hall to the Key West AIDS Memorial, the 1,240 names that are etched in granite on the memorial were read aloud. At the seaside memorial, local officials, ministers and community members spoke of the friends they loved, the progress that’s been made and the work still being done to defeat the virus.

In the early days, while the worldwide medical community struggled to understand, detect and control it, Key West buried business owners, bankers, housewives, Conchs, servicemen, athletes, artists and authors. 

Roses were placed in memory of the more than 1,200 names that are etched in granite on the Key West AIDS Memorial, which was the first in the nation to commemorate lives lost to the epidemic. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly

No segment of the community was spared, and the Key West AIDS Memorial was created to ensure the island would never forget those who fought, but lost the battle, when there was no ammunition and little information with which to arm them. 

Located at the foot of the Edward Knight Pier on White Street, the memorial was built with private funds and donated to the city of Key West in 1997. It became the first municipal AIDS memorial in the world, and at the time of its dedication, it featured 730 names.

To make room for more names in 2012, the original architect, Michael Ingram, designed a new side wall, which was dedicated in 2014.

By the end of 2019, the memorial featured 1,230 names of people who had died from complications due to AIDS in the Florida Keys. Ten additional names were added in 2020.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.