Rhythm club fire event impresses

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Seventy-nine years is a long time, but it is not long enough to forget about a tragedy that killed more than 200 people.

On April 23, 1940, the Rhythm Night Club was packed to its full capacity with students and their families celebrating a graduation, said Monroe Sago, owner of the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum.

As the famous jazz musician, Walter Barnes and his band played, the windows had been boarded up and the only exit to the building was locked to prevent outsiders from listening to the music without paying.

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It has been said that Barnes told his band to continue playing the song “Marie” once the flames started in order to keep the crowd calm and prevent them from stampeding toward the only exit.

Some were able to escape through a ticket booth, but others were trampled on, inhaled too much smoke or were burned alive.

To this day, it is still unknown how many lives were lost during the fire, but 209 were later identified, including Barnes and the majority of his band members, Sago said.

I had the privilege of attending the 79th commemoration of this tragedy Saturday, and what I saw there was remarkable.

Though at least 100 people of all ages attended the anniversary event, guest speaker Brenda Moore specifically reached out to the students in attendance with her inspirational speech. She reminded them “the sky is the limit” to what they can achieve, and told them to have a plan of action to achieve their dreams.

The commemoration also included a presentation of a $1,000 scholarship to one student, Takeria Owens, who had visited the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum, located on the grounds of the former dance hall and wrote about the experience.

To be eligible for the scholarship, Owens had to write a narrative about what she had learned there.

Though it seemed odd at first to commemorate something so horrible by giving out prizes and eating snacks, it later dawned on me what was happening.

Many people may hear about the Rhythm Night Club tragedy and question God. Why would he let something like this happen?

Coincidentally, the Sago family provided an answer to that question.

Though he had not intended to build a museum when he purchased the location of the Rhythm Night Club in 2010, people in the community essentially demanded it from him, Sago said, as they brought him photographs of lost loved ones, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia.

The same site of the tragedy that claimed the lives of one graduating class became an opportunity zone for another, through scholarships and inspirational speeches that remind those who are privileged to be alive to keep living.

Each group of students invited to the Rhythm Night Club year after year is asked to walk through and look at the pictures, the blueprints and the newspapers that hang in the museum.

The practice gives the assurance that the memory of those souls lost in the fire would always be remembered by at least one student in the next graduating class for years to come.

Sabrina Robertson is a reporter for The Natchez Democrat. Reach her at sabrina.simms@natchezdemocrat.com or at 601-445-3552.