brittney lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — Wilbert Whitley welcomes people gathered at the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum Saturday afternoon to commemorate the 74th year of the Rhythm Night Club Fire.
brittney lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — Wilbert Whitley welcomes people gathered at the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum Saturday afternoon to commemorate the 74th year of the Rhythm Night Club Fire.

Rhythm Night Club fire tragedy remembered

Published 12:05am Sunday, April 27, 2014

NATCHEZ — Seventy-four years after 209 people died in a nightclub fire that was one of the deadliest in U.S. history, Natchezians gathered to remember those who died and to look to the future.

The 74th anniversary of the fire was Wednesday, and Saturday the Rhythm Night Club Museum — which is located on the St. Catherine Street site of the deadly blaze — hosted its annual commemoration.

brittney lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — Ashia Smith, 10, leads the Essence Youth Choir in “Break Every Chain” during the commemoration of the 74th year of the Rhythm Night Club Fire Saturday afternoon.
brittney lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — Ashia Smith, 10, leads the Essence Youth Choir in “Break Every Chain” during the commemoration of the 74th year of the Rhythm Night Club Fire Saturday afternoon.

“These are sacred grounds,” program participant Wilbert Whitley said. “When you are standing here, over 200 souls that are now angels are looking down on you and blessing you.”

The Rhythm Night Club fire started at 10:15 p.m. April 23, 1940, when — some believe — a carelessly discarded match lit ablaze Spanish moss that had been used to decorate the dance hall. The moss had reportedly been sprayed with a flammable pesticide to ensure no bugs were in it.

The club was packed that night for a concert by the popular Chicago bandleader Walter Barnes and his orchestra. The fire started near the front entrance, and as the crowd tried to exit the building they found the back door had been padlocked and the windows boarded shut.

Many of the victims died of smoke inhalation, while others died when the crowd crushed them trying to escape. Barnes and nine other members of the band died, reportedly playing a song in an effort to calm the crowd.

In addition to memorializing the victims in music and speech, Rhythm Night Club Museum owners Monroe and Betty Sago awarded the annual memorial scholarship of $1,000 to Shaneka Tyrielle Ford.

Betty Sago said Ford has been involved with the museum’s annual commemorations since 2008, and spent a good deal of time at the museum learning the history of the fire for a school project, which she eventually presented to the museum as well.

The museum offers the scholarship, Betty Sago said, because the Sagos want to inspire the youth of the community to go on to achieve great things.