Community gathers to remember 209

Published 12:01 am Sunday, April 24, 2011

ERIC SHELTON/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Jennifer Ogden Combs speaks during the commemoration of the Rhythm Night Club fire Saturday afternoon in downtown Natchez.

NATCHEZ — The faces of 209 individuals who died in the Rhythm Night Club fire will not be forgotten as long as Natchezians continue to take pause and remember the day that overwhelmed a community with sorrow.

That was the message of several events to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the tragedy Saturday. Among those gatherings, was one at the site of the club, now the Rhythm Night Club Museum at 5 St. Catherine St.

The theme of the commemoration was “Faces of Hope.”

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Bishop T.C. McBeth led the devotion, and said it is a good thing to memorialize the tragedy.

“We can learn from the past,” McBeth said. “And strengthen our hearts.”

Alderman Ernest “Tony” Fields shared a song and thanked the Natchez Business and Civic League for participating in the commemoration with a memorial on the Natchez Bluff. He also thanked Monroe and Betty Sago, owners and operators of the museum.

“Their services rendered are indeed noble,” Fields said. “This is not a money-making venture for them. They just want to give back to the community.”

Monroe Sago said approximately 150 people visited the site throughout the day.

“When survivors come to the site, they get very emotional,” Sago said.

Judge Mary Toles welcomed the crowd that spilled from the tent and left standing room only.

“I think the Sagos seek to train minds to the pitfalls of the dangers that happen in a brief second,” Toles said. “They seek to share a hope for a better tomorrow. In 1940 African Americans here experienced their worst hour. People resolved to recover and go forward into their finest hour. When I see your faces, I see faces of hope.”

Betty Sago said the purpose of the commemoration is to give respect and show dignity for people who died there, and to give respect to the survivors.

“Even though 209 persons perished here, many survivors went on to build a life in some way,” Betty Sago said.

The Sagos awarded $250 scholarships to two local students, DeShane Trotter and Dwight Bradshaw, who visited the museum, took an interest in the story and wrote about it.

“They did a splendid job,” Sago said. “They did their best, and that is all that is required of anyone.”

Other students received certificates of attendance.

Natchez native Jennifer Ogden Combs was the guest speaker at the commemoration.

“As we commemorate loss and tragedy, we celebrate the hope found in it,” Combs said.

Combs’ mother, Cindy Stringer, wrote a presentation for a screenplay of the fire that painted a vivid scene of what happened that night. The feature film has yet to be produced, but Combs shared the description with the attendees.

“The Walter Barnes Band was playing and the excitement was building for weeks,” Combs said. “The club was packed, a crowd of mostly young adults in the community. It was the night of their lives. Somehow in that crowded dance hall, decorated with highly flammable material, there was a spark, then a tiny feather of smoke and then flames.”

Combs read about the patrons trying desperately to escape through the 3-foot-wide door because the windows were nailed shut and the rear door was locked. The band, whose members also died in the fire, continued to play to calm people.

“A nightclub. A fire. A generation vanished,” Combs said. “A few hours of music, laughter and joy to unspeakable, unbearable grief.”

Combs said while the number of people who were killed is staggering, the fire represents individual and personal loss.

“But there is hope in the faces of those who remember,” Combs said.

Combs said the fire permanently affected safety and occupancy codes in the U.S., and led to the establishment of Natchez’s first fire station.

Walmart Manager Lionel Stepter encouraged the community to visit the museum.

“I revisited the museum two weeks ago, and it completely touched me all over again,” Stepter said.