Events set to remember Rhythm Night Club fire

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 21, 2010

NATCHEZ — Friday will mark the 70th anniversary of the Rhythm Night Club fire, and various groups and individuals are preparing to pay tribute to lives lost and saved.

The Natchez Bluff Blues Festival will commemorate the tragedy during its reception at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture Museum, NAPAC Director Darrell White said.

“There was not a family in this community that wasn’t impacted some way by the Rhythm Club fire,” White said. “It’s important to recognize the individuals and the sacrifices made that we all benefit from today.”

On April 23, 1940, 209 people perished when flames engulfed the club on St. Catherine Street. The fire quickly spread due to decorative Spanish moss being draped over the rafters. A vast crowd filled the one-story club to see Chicago bandleader Walter Barnes and his orchestra, the Royal Creolians, perform.

Friday, the Natchez Civic and Business League will host its annual rededication and wreath-laying ceremony at the Rhythm Night Club marker on the bluff at 5:30 p.m.

Commemorations will conclude Saturday when Monroe and Betty Sago host a 1 p.m. celebration at 5 St. Catherine St., where the club once stood. The celebration’s theme is “Soaring to New Heights.”

The Sagos purchased the property in the 1980s, and on Saturday they will offer guests a sneak peek of their latest project — the Rhythm Night Club On Site Memorial Museum.

The Sagos have collected several newspaper articles and photographs about the fire and have documented interviews with survivors Rosalie Hawkins, Augustine Jackson George, Ella Simpson Russell and the late Elizabeth Odom Young. The museum is dedicated to the four women as well as those who perished.

“People have been very generous in passing materials to us,” Monroe Sago said. “It took years to collect it, but we finally did.”

“Our plans are to take this entire building, rework it and make it a museum,” Betty Sago said. “So many people come here to pray and tell their stories, and that inspired us to tell their stories.”

Though the museum is not officially open to the public, Betty Sago said tours will be available by appointment and an admission fee will be charged.