Survivors remember tragic fire

Published 12:11 am Sunday, April 27, 2008

NATCHEZ — “Accentuate the positive” is what the sign read that hung before those gathered to remember the tragic Rhythm Night Club fire in 1940 and that was the mood that could be felt in the air.

In the final string of events that have taken place over the last week in Natchez to commemorate the 68 years that have passed since the tragedy, the owners of the former nightclub property, Monroe and Betty Sago, had a celebration Saturday afternoon.

Monroe said when he bought the property 25 years ago he had no idea that it was the Rhythm Night Club property, once he found out he started doing more research and then realized that at some point he wanted to have a type of memorial event there.

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“I want people to know the history,” he said.

His wife Betty said she knew she wanted to have an event on their property once she started meeting some of the survivors of the fire.

“I’m very glad that I’m able to host this after becoming acquainted with four survivors,” she said.

The four survivors she had met were invited to the event, and Betty said the event was put on to celebrate their lives.

“It’s good to celebrate with them,” she said. “I felt it was time to stand up and celebrate their lives after the fire.”

Betty said while the fire was a terrible tragedy, some good came from it.

As it’s the fourth deadliest fire in the history of the United States, it revamped fire codes such as building occupancy limits and exit requirements.

Survivor Augustine Jackson-George said a good thing came from the incident, she actually met her husband at the club that night.

“Eight months after the fire, we got married,” she said, and they were together for 30 years and had two daughters.

George was able to escape the fire quickly.

“Somebody pushed me out when it first started,” she said.

She said while sometimes it’s hard to delve back into the memories of the fire, she appreciates the events Natchez has been having to commemorate.

Betty said one survivor that she had come to meet and speak with could not attend the event but said she would tell her story.

Elizabeth Odom Young is the survivor and had gone to the club that night with her sister and brother-in-law.

Young walked to the front of the club to use the bathroom at one point and actually was one of the first people to notice the Spanish moss on fire.

“As she came to the front, she noticed a piece of moss was on fire,” Betty said.

Betty said Young alerted someone of the fire, and the person tried to put the fire out but was unable to do it.

When the fire began to rage on uncontrollably, Young escaped the building, as she was close to the door.

Once outside the building, she tried to break open a window where her sister and brother-in-law were to let them out but was unable to do so.

She later found the two of them at a funeral home — they had perished in the fire.

Betty said she found the story to be compelling.

Patricia Profice attended the event because she found the fire to be fascinating.

“I just wanted to know the history of it,” she said.

Profice said an event like Saturday’s should be held each year.

“It was a major disaster,” she said, and that it should be recognized annually.

Walter Lee was visiting Natchez from Winona and heard about the event and decided to come.

“I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “It played a big part in the African-American community.”

Darrell White, director of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African-American Culture Museum, was pleased with the 30 to 40 people who came to the event.

He said the memorial events over the past year were like fruit dying on the vine but after the three events this year, much life has been breathed back into the events.

“As far as awareness, it’s multiplied itself many times over,” he said.

The event allowed for singing, praising, eating, socializing and celebrating.