Natchez remembers Rhythm Club fire

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 21, 2011

NATCHEZ — Saturday marks the 71st anniversary of an occasion that made national headlines and changed fire codes to improve safety across the United States.

But the Rhythm Night Club fire affected the community in Natchez locally by robbing the town of a generation, said Darrell White.

White, director of the Natchez cultural heritage tourism and the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Museum, said when flames burned down the Rhythm Night Club, it took with it 209 black men and women who could have likely been at the forefront of the local Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Attendees ranged form ages 15 to 25 and older, White said.

“(Fire victims) were considered to have been the cream of the crop of the African-American community,” White said.

Three activities Saturday commemorate the loss of the fire victims.

The Business and Civic League will host a memorial service at 10 a.m. Saturday at 164 East Franklin St., followed immediately with the wreath lying on the bluff.

The recently opened Rhythm Club Museum will host an event with remarks, food and entertainment to commemorate the fire and its victims at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the club’s original location of 5 St. Catherine St.

A free screening and the Natchez premier of the “Rhythm Night Club Fire” documentary at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center starts at 3 p.m. and will last one hour.

The video presentation is free, and any contributions will be donated toward the upkeep of the Watkins Street Cemetery, which houses unmarked graves of some of the fire victims.

White said the documentary tells the story of Natchez on April 23, 1940, and expresses the anticipation of hearing Walter Barnes, who performed that night.

Documentary filmmaker Brian Burch of Digital Design House of Orlando, Fla., is presently showing the film among festival circuits, White said.

White said the impact of the fire inevitably touched most everyone in Natchez.

“Mothers, fathers, sister brothers, daughters, aunts, cousins, coworkers, church members, neighbors (were lost). Even the white community lost employees in the fire,” White said.

“In some aspect nearly every family had some sort of story to tell.

“And those folks should be remembered.”