Jewel Thais Williams: Owner of the Oldest Black SGL-T Club in America/ Humanitarian – A Life of Service
by Doug Cooper Spencer
In a time when black patrons had to show I.D. to get into white owned gay clubs – sometimes even two pieces of I.D. were required, all while we stood to the side and let the white patrons waltz by with impunity – Jewell Thais Williams, a black lesbian, took it upon herself to open The Catch One in L.A. The year was 1972, making Catch One the oldest black owned gay and lesbian clubs in the country.
Over the years Jewell went on to not only own the club, but to actually purchase the land on which it stands as well. Today, Catch One is the oldest black owned gay club in the country.
If you’ve ever been to L.A., most likely you’ve partied at Catch One. I know I did for many years back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s when I lived on the West Coast. What began as a single bar ensconced in a large building on Pico Boulevard, eventually became an entire playground as Jewel Thais Williams came to own the entire site transforming the single bar into a multi-level club with three dance floors and three bars as well as a restaurant.
But not only is the complex for partying, Jewel, having always been a humanitarian and one dedicated to wellness, has also opened up a holistic health clinic, offering health care to the underserved and the underinsured of the community, in another part of the site.
Even if you’ve never been to Jewel’s Catch One you’ve probably seen it. It’s been the location for many events over the years, from music videos, to films and T.V., shows like the T.V. series, ‘Cold Case’, films like ‘I’m Gonna Get You Sucker’ and BAPS (the Halle Berry film). However, many will recall Catch One as the location for some episodes of ‘Noah’s Arc’ (especially the one in which Noah and friends did the drag number at the end of one of the shows). The Catch One has also served as host of many, many political and humanitarian events over the decades as well.
But there would be no Catch One, no community health center or vegetarian restaurant without the spirit and the energy of Jewel Thais Williams. Not only was it Jewel’s vision to offer a place for black gays and lesbians to socialize during a period when both homophobia as well as racial discrimination worked against the black SGLT community, but she has also been a longtime HIV/AIDS and wellness activist for many years, co-founding the Minority AIDS Project and opening Rue’s House for women and children with HIV/AIDS during the height of the AIDS crisis.
Jewel is also certified in alternative Chinese medicine and opened the non-profit Village Health Foundation to provide holistic healthcare to the underserved and the uninsured in the community.
The clinic, which is situated next door to the club – on property she also purchased – was opened by Jewel to provide quality supplemental and medical care to everyone, regardless of race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or their financial situation.
Jewel and her spouse Rue, also founded Rue’s House, the first residential home in the nation, for homeless women and children with HIV/AIDS.
Rue’s House, no longer needed due to the medical advancements in the AIDS community, closed its doors in 1997 and reopened as The Village Manor currently serving recovering adults with substance abuse issues. In addition to these endeavors, they have recently established the Vegan Village Internet Cafe, again, spreading Jewel’s message of wellness by offering an organic vegetarian menu.
The road hasn’t been easy for Jewel, though. I can recall sitting and talking with her so many years ago, hearing her tell of the death threats against her and threats of arson against her property – some, it appeared, even from within the gay community, white gay club owners who felt she was ‘siphoning’ offer their black gay clientele – I would hear of Feds threatening to shut her business down. We would talk and she would tell me how exhausting it could become, and with that smile and that warm demeanor, she would tell us how she would persist because she knew what she was doing was right.
That was many years ago when we would sit at the bar and talk, and today at age, 71, looking as spry as ever, Jewel keeps going.
In an era that seems to focus so much on self-indulgence and escapism in the black LGBT community, Jewel Thai Williams’s life offers a treatise on the real value of life, wellness and service to others. Thank you so much, Jewel.
Tags: Catch One, Doug Cooper Spencer, Jewel Thais Williams