Residents recall 1940’s tragic fire at Rhythm Night Club

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 9, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Although it happened when she was in junior high, Eugenia Perry remembers it like it was yesterday.

It was the morning of April 23, 1940, and her uncle had come to tell her family the news &045; that her aunt, a high school honor student, had died in a fire at the Rhythm Night Club.

&uot;It was my daddy’s youngest sister,&uot; said Perry, whose eyes moistened as she told the story. &uot;My grandfather begged her not to go. Š I went to school that day, but there was no school. Everywhere in Natchez that day, you could see people screaming and crying.&uot;

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In all, 241 people, from sixth-grade students to pillars of the community, died in the fire. Since it was the night of a long-anticipated dance, the building was packed.

To remember the dead and warn the living, the Natchez Business and Civic League holds a memorial service each year on the Mississippi River bluff. This year’s service, held late Wednesday afternoon, was attended by about 30 people, including Perry, who also lost three cousins in the fire.

&uot;This is done not only to keep their memory alive, but to keep those who walk the earth today alive,&uot; said Don Washington who, with Mary Toles, organized Wednesday’s service.

&uot;Sometimes remembering tragedies like this forces ourselves to think &045; and may help prevent another one,&uot; Washington said.

&uot;It’s a historic occasion &045; and one that we don’t want repeated,&uot; said Michael Winn, president of the Business and Civic League.

Winn noted that many community leaders died in the fire that night, adding that &uot;we can truly say we lost a lot. And there were others who could have easily been there that night, were it not for the grace of God.&uot;

Such tragedies also serve to remind us to take life seriously, since we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, the Rev. James Lee told the crowd.

They also remind the living about the necessity of getting right with God before death &045; and of the assurance that, for those who accept Christ, eternal life awaits, Lee said.

&uot;If you are in the Lord Jesus Christ, you shall live,&uot; he said.

Still, for those left behind, a gap is still left by those who died that night, said Thelma Williams, who attended the service. One of Williams’ cousins was killed in the fire; another was badly burned.

&uot;We do this (service) with the idea of it never happening again, but we’re also still mourning,&uot; Williams said.