Fire survivor grateful to be alivePublished 12:05am Monday, April 23, 2012
NATCHEZ — Probably more than any other day of the year, today, Rosalie W. Hawkins feels poignantly grateful to be so old, she said.
Hawkins, now 92, sat on a bench with her granddaughter Saturday at the same site she scrambled to escape on April 23, 1940. Getting away from that spot on St. Catherine Street saved her from the flames that took so many other young people who came that night to see Walter Barnes from Chicago perform at the Rhythm Night Club.
She was 19 the night that made her a survivor for the rest of her life. But that night she lost friends, relatives and classmates, she said.
Now the site, which sat vacant for decades, is memorialized by the Rhythm Night Club museum.
“It makes me feel wonderful to know I’m still living, being so young in the crowd when (the fire) happened,” Hawkins said.
Community members, many with relatives who perished and most all of them with stories handed down by a relative about the fire that killed 209 people, gathered outside the museum under a tent to remember the anniversary of the fire and dedicate the commemorative bricks outside the museum.
“It’s a pleasure to be here, and my mind goes back to what a wonderful time I had (before the fire),” Hawkins said.
Her mind also went back Saturday to all she witnessed following the spark from a careless match, which some say started the fire.
“I’m so grateful to the Lord that he let me be one of the ones who got out,” Hawkins said.
Pat Washington, Hawkins’ granddaughter who watched huddled near her grandmother protectively, said she’s grateful to Monroe and Betty Sago for all their work in making the museum what it is.
“It’s something (people can visit) and the world can appreciate (the story),” Washington said.
The Sagos dedicated commemorative bricks to the community at the ceremony. The bricks were purchased by community members or businesses and engraved with names of those lost or other messages.
And they also presented Natchez High School senior Lakeria Kaho with a $500 scholarship for college.
Betty Sago said Kaho has spent her spare time volunteering at the museum by cleaning, giving tours and researching. She has written a number of reports on the incident for school, Betty said.
“I guess I got a thirst and hunger for the knowledge and pictures (of the incident),” Kaho said.
“That whole day — it’s a lot to know, and a lot of the stories make me cry.”
Robert McNeely of the Isle of Capri Casino, Natchez, told the crowd the Isle of Capri planned to match the Sagos’ $500 scholarship.
Kaho said she will attend Copiah-Lincoln Community College in the fall and plans to study physical therapy.
McNeely was also the keynote speaker at the event.
“Things have changed so much,” McNeely said. “People get older, and there are younger people who don’t know about it — those that gathered (after the fire), that smell. It was horrible.”
McNeely said so many young people who died in the fire didn’t have a chance to pave the way for his generation, but by encouraging young people like Kaho, today’s generation can help pave the way for those who follow behind them.
McNeely said he grew up two blocks from the site and heard stories of the fire.
“I feel blessed that my family wasn’t touched, but we have to make sure the memories of the people who perished won’t be forgotten,” he said.