Elder, Innovator, Philanthropist

jewel williams

A Memoir by Jewel Thais-Williams

A Memoir by Jewel Thais-Williams

I became aware of this unknown phenomenon, HIV/AIDS, that was taking place while I was in Houston. I had gone down there to open up the second Catch One Nightclub. One of the drag queens that was doing a show for me didn’t show up. I found out a week or two later that she was in the hospital, and everybody thought it was because of pneumonia. I started hearing some of the same stories coming from LA, and as more people started dying it became an urgency, and I knew I needed to get back to LA and see what this was all about.
At the height of the epidemic it was just our people dying, some quickly some not so quickly, and the fear in the community took over. Much like COVID, we knew this was happening and wouldn’t take the necessary precautions. There was sadness on one hand, anger on the other hand, people not caring enough about themselves and about each other to take the necessary precautions to keep from spreading it and from ultimately killing each other.
At the peak, there was a case of arson in the club upstairs, so we had moved things downstairs all the time. Rev. Carl Bean was just starting to launch his club (at least publicly) in the mid 1980s. So, someone had come and asked if they could start meeting there. We used to meet in the corner of the Catch upstairs every Sunday. I remember the char, and the burnt smell from the fire, but my association with Carl Bean and knowing that we had to do something pretty much led to the development of a community center right there. That’s when we started the Minority AIDS Project.
Just before that, I had made the introduction to Dr. Wilbur Jordan, so we were doing what we needed to do (on the side) as far as getting different kinds of medications and treatments (like Interferon) that would provide more help to Black folks. AZT wasn’t doing it for us, and that was the only thing that was available then. Simultaneously, with Rev. Carl Bean and the Unity Fellowship of Christ, we had a couple of things developing. The church was started, eventually having the Minority AIDS Project come out of that union. Every Sunday, we would have a little service. We didn’t have no music or nothing. Maybe sing a little A and B selection, and have a short talk on how to live right. Eventually, we were able to help get an actual building for the Minority AIDS Project. The Dignity House, the church, and the Minority AIDS Project came out of those early meetings.
When thinking of our community now and where we are with this epidemic, I just think about how far we’ve come. I remember being a part of the board for APLA for six years, and at that time I made sure they knew I wasn’t there to be their “token” board member, but because they were a larger organization and I needed to be positioned there so that I could bring whatever I could back to my community. I had to be positioned there to make sure they contributed to the welfare of my community. There used to be so much shame then about having HIV, and people wouldn’t come to receive services because of the stigma. But now I see that most agencies are required to address HIV and to do something to help bring the epidemic to an end.
Though a lot has changed, there still is so much that needs to be done. AIDS has been around for years, and we have yet to find a cure or vaccine that could help eliminate it. There have been vaccinations presented for COVID-19, so what are we not doing? Are we even looking for a cure for HIV/AIDS? It’s not even being considered or a part of the conversation anymore. I think they’re more so looking at the billions of dollars made off of us, and the greed for money is more important to them than the need for a cure. Our people are still getting infected, and people are still dying at disproportionate numbers.

I think having this Black AIDS Monument is important because, like Black History month, we need to know where we come from, what we’ve been through, and why Black Lives Matter. The Hispanics got their wall, and they’ve had it for a long time. There’s been various quilts and things of that nature, but I think the time is right for it now because it is important for us to focus on Black Lives, and for us to have the opportunity to speak about and pay homage to the Black lives that have contributed to the fight. Black people for all these years have contributed and given back to this country, and I think it’s necessary for our kids to know what we do and have done.

Greg Wilson is the author of Metamorphosis of a Heart. He can be reached at gdubbwilson@gmail.com.

Scroll to Top