Rhythm Night Club Museum celebrates grand opening

Published 12:03 am Monday, November 8, 2010

NATCHEZ — For 70 years the lives of 209 people killed in the Rhythm Night Club were publicly commemorated only with a historical marker, a small annual ceremony and a few scattered newspaper clippings.

But Natchez residents Monroe and Betty Sago have been working for months to change that, and Saturday they celebrated their work with the grand opening of the Rhythm Night Club Museum.

The yellow building on St. Catherine Street and a historical marker now sit where the Rhythm Night Club burned to the ground on April 23, 1940, when Chicago bandleader Walter Barnes and his orchestra performed in concert.

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The fire broke out after a discarded match or cigarette reportedly ignited the decorative Spanish moss that was draping the ceiling of the club.

The flames overtook the building, while panicked concert attendees darted for the only exit. The windows were boarded up to keep unwanted guests from sneaking inside.

The fire resulted in 209 deaths, including Barnes and members of his orchestra. The fire is ranked as the seventh deadliest fire in U.S. history.

“This is a place to remember,” the Rev. Walter Sago said in a prayer before the opening. “We need to remember those who lost their lives here.”

Monroe and Betty Sago dedicated the museum in April.

The museum contains numerous exhibits regarding the fire that were donated to the Sagos by survivors and relatives of survivors.

“Many people were affected by the fire,” Betty Sago said. “Life must go on, but we must never forget where we came from. They have a place in history.”

Betty Sago said the importance of remembering a tragedy such as the fire at the Rhythm Night Club is to keep the story alive.

“Without the stories, once the survivors are gone, the history is lost,” she said.

Sago said the tragedy brought from the fire did help bring some good to the area and the nation.

“There is always a silver lining,” she said. “Fire safety codes changed throughout the country after this incident, and that has helped saved many lives.”

Adams County Supervisor Darryl Grennell attended the opening and commemorated the museum as a historic sight.

“This is a part of our history,” Grennell said. “It affected our future and always needs to be remembered.”