Ryan White (1971-1990) was a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. He was diagnosed at the age of 13. In the early 1980s, not much was known about the disease, and Ryan was not allowed to continue attending school in his hometown because parents thought he would spread the disease to others. After a fierce legal battle that brought national attention to Ryan and his family, he was allowed to return to school. However, discrimination continued, and Ryan and his family decided to move further south to Cicero, Indiana. There, Hamilton Heights schools educated their students about AIDS and its effects, and they welcomed him with open arms.
Meanwhile, Ryan became a spokesperson for AIDS communities, speaking locally and internationally about his experiences. He was friends with many celebrities and was able to speak at the President’s Commission on the AIDS Epidemic. A TV movie, “The Ryan White Story,” was made about his life, and it aired in 1989, gaining him further popularity. Ryan’s major goal in life was to have a normal childhood and normal experiences in high school. He enjoyed school and was able to skateboard, drive, and hold a job at a surf shop.
However, Ryan was still sick, and his illness caused his death on April 8th, 1990. Thousands attended his funeral in Indianapolis, including first Lady Barbara Bush. He was buried in Cicero, in part because of the warm welcome the community had given him. Ryan’s legacy lives on through the National CARE Act, IU’s Dance Marathon for Riley (as well as similar marathons at other universities), an AIDS walk at Hamilton Heights commemorating Ryan with a scholarship, and more.
In 2001, Ryan’s mother donated the contents of his room, in addition to other materials, to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The museum opened their ground-breaking permanent exhibit The Power of Children in 2004. The exhibit portrays Ryan’s life, as well as the lives of Ruby Bridges and Anne Frank.
In 2016, The Children’s Museum received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to digitize letters sent to Ryan White in the 1980s in collaboration with IUPUI Library’s Program of Digital Scholarship. The archive of nearly 6,000 letters offers significant cultural information related to the AIDS epidemic, the perspective of children, and related issues of tolerance, education, and inspiration as well as a window to popular culture in the 1980s.
As part of this project, the Museum has created an online learning platform for youth in grades 3-12 to learn how to transcribe letters and research questions of interest about Ryan’s life and time period. In addition, the letters and transcriptions are available to scholars through the IUPUI Library online digital collections, allowing the letters to be used for research regarding the misunderstood disease and to share the legacy of Ryan White.
Visit The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis website to learn more.