April 23, 1940 Rhythm Night Club Fire

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.