Tragedy happened 81 years ago in Natchez, MS on April 23, 1940. 209 lives were lost at the Rhythm Night Club.
I traveled to Natchez, MS to learn more about the history of this famous nightclub. Rhythm Night Club was a former church, blacksmith shop, mule pen, and garage. The nightclub was in existence from 1937 until that deadly night. The club also held community activities, high school, and junior-senior dances.
The club was a one-story 200 feet tin building that had a dance floor, orchestra platform, bandstand, bar, game room, and coatroom.
Ed Frazier was the owner of the Rhythm Night Club and hired clarinetist and conductor, Walter Barnes of the Walter Barnes Band to perform at the club.
Walter Barnes, one of fifteen children was born in Vicksburg, MS on July 18, 1905. Barnes moved to Chicago where he completed his education and attended Chicago Musical College and had private sessions with Franz Schoepp. Barnes was also a columnist for the Chicago Defender writing short articles about his life on the road as a traveling band leader.
Barnes started his career with Jelly Roll Morton's band. Morton was a jazz pianist and regarded as the first jazz composer and the first to write down his jazz arrangements. Soon Barnes branched out on his own. He played at the Arcadia and Dreamland Ballrooms on Chicago's north side, the Savoy Ballroom on Chicago's southside, and at the Cotton Club on Chicago's westside owned by Al Capone's brother, Ralph Capone. Walter Barnes & His Royal Creolians became the first black band to broadcast in Chicago, over WHFC. Barnes was a successful and popular bandleader in the Deep South which he would frequent yearly.
Walter Barnes and his band were hired by the Money Wasters Club to perform at the Rhythm Night Club in Natchez, MS, Tuesday, April 23, 1940. This was a big event for the City of Natchez. Everyone wanted to see and hear Walter Barnes & His Royal Creolians. The club had to look nice and the people of Natchez went to great lengths to prepare. Men, women, and even teenagers bought outfits for this amazing evening. Even residents from Louisana came by ferry to see Walter Barnes.
The items used to decorate the club were Spanish moss that was decorated on the ceilings and chicken wire. The moss was sprayed with a pesticide called flit that is highly flammable to kill bugs. All the windows except for one were boarded up to prevent any non-paying customers from looking through the window to see Walter Barnes' perform. The back door was also boarded up to keep anyone from sneaking in without paying.
An estimate of 500 people arrived at The Rhythm Night Club, known, as the Big Barn Dance. Everyone was having a good time, dancing, socializing, and listening to the amazing Walter Barnes and his band perform.
In the last hours of the night around 11:30 p.m., as the band was playing and the people were dancing, the club caught on fire at the front entrance. It is believed that a lit match or cigarette that got close to the Spanish moss that had the flammable flit that covered the whole ceiling of the club, caught on fire that caused the fire to spread quickly. People started to scream and scramble trying to get out of the club. With the windows boarded up and the back doors locked it was impossible to get out. The one window that was not boarded up, everyone was trying to get out. There was only one exit and that was the entrance door where the fire started that trapped everyone inside.
While the commotion was going on, Walter Barnes told everyone to be calm and move in an orderly fashion to escape. He told his band to keep on playing. His band continued to play "Marie" as people were screaming and trying to save their lives. I thought about the movie "Titanic" and how the band kept on playing as the ship went down.
The lights in the club went out and caused more hysteria for everyone that was trapped in the club. People on the outside of the club were trying to go in to save their friends, families, and classmates but it was difficult to go in due to the heavy black smoke. They couldn't get in the save them. Some patrons were able to get out with life-saving injuries. Eventually, the fire caused the roof to collapse.
A total of 209 victims perished in the fire. Many suffocated, burned, or crushed to death. Some families were able to identify their loved ones and some couldn't because their bodies were charred beyond recognition.
Walter Barnes and eight of his band members died in the fire.
Juanita Avery, Vocalist
Paul Scott, Trumpet
James Coles, Trombone
Calvin Roberts, Trombone
Clarence Porter, Piano
Jessie Washington, Sax
John Henderson, Sax
Walter Barnes' wife, Dorothy Parrott Barnes, said her husband died a hero as he instructed the band to continue to play "Marie" trying to do everything he can to calm the patrons.
Barnes' body was shipped to Chicago. The viewing was at W.T. Brown Funeral Home. The funeral was held at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. It's estimated that 15,000 attend the funeral. Barnes is buried at Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Glenwood, IL next to his wife who died in 1999. Barnes was 33 years old.
Several students and teachers from Brumfield High School that attend the Rhythm Night Club perished. Band director, Woodrick McGuire, dressed in white, was one of the 209 victims that died in the fire.
For twelve years after the fire, Brumfield High School didn't have a band because the band director died. Assistant Principal, T.M. Jennings became an athletic coach because the original coach died in the fire.
Brumfield High School was built in 1925 at the cost of $75,000. The school was named after George Washington Brumfield who was a principal for African American schools in Natchez, MS for over 25 years.
Brumfield died in 1927. In his obituary, Brumfield was credited for “colored public schools of this city to a point of efficiency that measures up to the highest standards.”
In 1993, Brumfield High School was listed as a National Historic Site.
Brumfield High School Class of 1927.
In the 1950s, Brumfield became an elementary school. The school closed in the 1980s and was later rehabilitated as apartments.
Several newspapers around the world carried headlines of the Rhythm Night Club Fire. The Chicago Defender carried the headline, "Natchez Fire Ranks Fourth in Disaster."
The Mississippi House voted 99 to 37 to pass a bill to donate $1,000 of state funds to the American Red Cross, Adams County Chapter. The funds were used towards hospitalization for the injured and burial of the victims.
The Mayor of Natchez, W.J. Byrne, issued a proclamation regarding the Rhythm Night Club and placed a ban on public dancing until the investigation of the fire was completed.
Five or six males were arrested and accused of setting the club on fire. They were eventually let go due to not enough evidence.
The Natchez Democrat wrote stories of victims that perished at the Rhythm Night Club:
Mother Loses All Four of Her Children
Man Loses Three Sons
Mother Loses Three Daughters
Natchez Teacher Dies in Blaze
Five Children Orphaned
A woman tried to save her life by seeking refuge in a refrigerator. She was found dead of suffocation.
Ethel Lyons, a Louisiana State WPA teacher, body was charred so bad that she was identified by the jewelry she had on.
Three morticians, two black, Century and Bluff City, one white National provided funeral services for some of the victims. For four days, family members buried their loved ones, day and night.
The Watkins Street Cemetery (17 acres located at the 1300 block of Watkins Street) one of the oldest cemeteries in Mississippi, was purchased by Albert E. James. Ten black men bought the cemetery from James for $500.00 and five promissory notes of $700 each in 1909. The transaction established The Colored Peoples' Cemetery, now known as Watkins Street Cemetery.
The burial contains the graves of many residents of Natchez, veterans, and former slaves. Approximately 60 unidentified bodies from the nightclub fire were buried somewhere in three mass graves at Watkins Street Cemetery.
In 2005, the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery Association, a nonprofit organization, founded by Thelma T. White, was formed to preserve the grounds by cutting grass, trimming weeds, tree and limb removal, erosion, and fallen headstones at this historic African American cemetery.
On September 24, 2012, a memorial headstone was dedicated at the Watkins Street Cemetery. Every year there is a commemoration in memory of the victims of the Rhythm Night Club. The number on the headstone says 200, but it's 209 victims.
Monroe and Betty Sago are the founders of the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum. Their mission is to maintain the history and make sure the Rhythm Night Club tragedy is not forgotten.
I am kneeling at what was the entrance of the Rhythm Night Club. The length of the club goes all the way back to the end of the museum. The concrete behind me was the width of the nightclub. Its estimated 500 people were in the club.
The museum contains newspaper articles, photos, written documentation, and live recordings from survivors telling their own stories about what happened on that dreadful night.
In front of the museum is a brick memorial. I saw bricks of the names of the survivors of the Rhythm Night Club. Below are stories from two survivors:
Survivor, Robert Mackel, didn't want to go to the dance but decided to go with a friend. While dancing with a girl, he heard someone yell fire. He was able to escape without being hurt. Mackel helped removed the dead bodies and prepare burials. Several caskets that were ordered had to be placed on the sidewalk because there was no space in the funeral home.
Rosie L. Winter Fleming Hawkins, was a senior in high school that attended the dance. She danced with her teacher, Woodrick McGuire, who perished in the fire. Hawkins was able to escape because she was near a boarded window. Her friend, James Poindexter was able to knock out the window. Five of Hawkins' classmates perished in the fire who was suppose to graduate from high school in May 1940.
Rhythm Club Fire Monument located on the bluff of the Mississippi River list the names of the victims of the Natchez Rhythm Night Club Fire. The monument was erected on September 5, 1940.