The Rhythm Night Club fire: A night not to be

Published 12:08 am Sunday, April 25, 2010

Never before had Rosalie Hawkins been to a big dance.

Sure, she’d danced at neighborhood house parties, but this time was different. This time she was going to dance to a live band at the Rhythm Night Club, and it was going to be a night to remember.

“It was my year to graduate from high school, and it was a glorious thing for me to have the opportunity to have gone to see a big band coming from Chicago,” Hawkins said. “It was a privilege for me to go to my big dance.”

The glorious night Hawkins had imagined was not meant to be.

On April 23, 1940, at approximately 11:15 p.m., a discarded match or cigarette reportedly ignited the decorative Spanish moss that draped the ceiling of the Rhythm Night Club. Flames soon engulfed the corrugated metal building, and hundreds of panicked patrons darted for the only exit. The windows were boarded shut to keep unwanted guests from sneaking in.

The fire resulted in the deaths of 209 people, including Chicago bandleader Walter Barnes and members of his orchestra. Seventy years later, the Rhythm Night Club fire is ranked as the seventh deadliest fire in U.S. history.

Hawkins, now 90, survived.

She was dancing with a young man by the name of James Poindexter when the fire started. She said Poindexter somehow managed to break the glass out of a window, and they both escaped. Poindexter also saved Hawkins’ classmate, Princess Alexander.

“He put me out the window, he put my classmate out and he jumped out himself,” Hawkins said. “After he put us out, he went his way and I went mine.”

Once Princess Alexander realized her sisters had not escaped, she went back inside the club to save them. Hawkins later learned Princess and her sisters died in the fire.

“It was a horrible thing to see those people laying out there. Some were deceased. Some were yelling they were hurt. It was just a horrible thing I tell you,” Hawkins said.

Though Hawkins’ memories of the tragedy aren’t as vivid as they once were, her grief has not faded.

“When I think about what happened, it gets me low,” Hawkins said. “But I thank Jesus for saving me. I could’ve been like the other people.”

The stories of those who survived the Rhythm Night Club fire have spawned a dialogue among generations far removed from the tragedy.

Stories like Hawkins’ were commonplace in Dr. James R. Todd Jr.’s house growing up.

Todd’s mother, Maggie Donnan, was visiting her mother in Natchez around the time of the fire. The images of bodies stacked like hardwood outside area funeral homes were forever seared in Donnan’s mind.

“My mother had written a letter to my father indicating how fearful she was,” Todd said. “She was having bad dreams, and her dreams were so bad she had to sleep with her mother at night.

“She said the bodies were on the streets, and some didn’t have a scar on them. That meant they suffocated.”

Todd said his mother saved articles from The Chicago Daily Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier, two black newspapers that covered the fire and its aftermath. Todd has reviewed those articles more times than he can count, and often recalls the stories told to him by survivors, spectators and family members of those who perished.

“There are a lot of people who have different stories around here,” Todd said. “The people who were just passing by, the people who were at the scene but didn’t have the money to get it in … I still have more questions than answers about the whole thing.”

Survivor Augustine George, 91, who now resides in Lebanon, Ill., stopped asking questions a long time ago. Like Hawkins, she was saved by a man she never saw again.

“They called him White Mouth. He used to work at the ice house, and that’s all I can tell you,” Hawkins said of her hero.

“(White Mouth) pushed me out the front door, and that’s where I met my husband.”

Eight months after the fire, George married Johnny Matthews and moved to New Orleans. George’s cousin, Walter Haley, suffered burn injuries in the fire. Matthew’s brother did not survive.

“(The fire) was something we talked about before he passed,” George said. “I was very upset during that time.

I can’t tell you much about it now, but I remember it was the first time we had a big dance like that in Natchez. We were so excited that night.”