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Rhythm Night Club fire remembered in commemoration ceremony

 

NATCHEZ — Approximately 100 people gathered Saturday afternoon at the site of a fire that occurred 79 years ago this week and claimed the lives of more than 200 people.

The Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum, 5 St. Catherine St., honors victims of the club that burned on April 23, 1940.

People who gathered at the museum on Saturday listened to guest speaker Brenda Moore give words of encouragement to young students, telling them “the sky is the limit” to what they can achieve.

After her speech, organizers gave a $1,000 scholarship to Natchez High School senior, Takeria Owens, who plans to study English and pre-law at Mississippi State University in Starkville.

“I enjoy being here and being a part of any way we can help kids go to college,” said 81-year-old Augustine Reynolds, who said she had been attending the commemoration of the Rhythm Night Club fire since the annual event started in 2010.

“I like to be a part of it from the start to the end — until the Lord may take me away,” Reynolds said.

Though she didn’t know anyone who had been impacted by the fire personally, Reynolds said she was touched by what happened when she learned about it as a little girl.

“They say there were people trying to come out through the windows and everything,” Reynolds said. “They tried to get out, but they couldn’t.”

Natchez Fire Chief Ventris Green said the original club had fatal flaws that inspired many of the fire codes that exist today.

“What happened here is the reason the Natchez Fire Department exists now,” Green said, adding that the department had been established a few years after the tragedy. “Some of the fire codes we have were invented because of this fire.”

Many members of the Natchez Fire Department and volunteer fire departments also joined the commemoration this year, some of them for the first time, including Ricky Warren and his son Chandler Warren and his friend Tony Gamberi.

“I wanted to learn a little bit more about the fire,” Ricky Warren said. “I’ve heard so many different things about it and I wanted to see it for myself. … It makes me think about all of those people who could not get out because there was only one door and think about them being trampled to death as the fire overtook them. It’s just so sad to think something like that could happen.”

The Rhythm Night Club museum’s owner, Monroe Sago said he originally purchased the site of the fire a decade ago to build an automobile body shop. However, when others came to him with photographs of their friends and family members who were burned, stories of survivors, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia from the tragedy that altered the history of fire protection, it couldn’t be ignored, Monroe said.

Since the founding of the museum in 2010, Monroe and his wife, Betty Sago have hosted a commemorative gathering to preserve the memory of what happened there for future generations.

“We do this because this is something we need to do for our community,” Betty said. “We need to do it. … We didn’t go looking for this museum. This museum found us.”

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