NATCHEZ, MS (WLBT) - A fire that happened more than 78 years ago changed the lives of a generation of African-Americans, and helped establish safety codes nationwide.
The Natchez Rhythm Night Club Fire is listed as the seventh deadliest fire in United States history.
In the Bluff City, a festive night on the town turned to tragedy -- leading to a hidden saga in African-American history.
“It was big entertainment, particularly for a town this size,” said Natchez Cultural and Heritage Tourism Director Darrell White.
“People came from near and far,” added Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum owner Monroe Sago. “They came across on ferry from Louisiana."
On April 23, 1940, more than 500 people crowded into the medal dance hall to watch Walter Barnes and the Royal Creolians, a renowned swing band from Chicago.
"The hall itself was not an enormous structure, and they were packed in there like sardines," said White.
Spanish Moss, sprayed with a flammable insecticide, decorated the night club. There was only one way in and out, with doors and windows boarded shut. The dangerous measures were taken to prevent anyone from seeing the band or enjoying the music without paying.
Ninety-five-year-old Thelma Thompson White couldn’t afford the 50 cent admission, but she and friend Ruth Brown went to the dance hall before the performance. The two were seniors.
White remained at home while Brown borrowed money to attend the concert. She would later die in the fire.
“Screams you could hear all over town,” recalls White. “Most of my classmates and most of the graduates of that class burned up. They were stacked up at the windows and doors where they tried to get out.”
209 people lost their lives, and scores more were injured.
Monroe and Betty Sago own the property where the Rhythm Club stood, and established a museum documenting its history.
“One man came in. He said ‘fire’ but they thought he said ‘fight,’” said Monroe Sago.
The Sago’s have received pictures and documents from across the country from survivors and family members to be kept in their archives. In 2004, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History placed a plaque at the location commemorating the site.
“The orchestra stayed right there,” said Betty Sago. “The last person to escape the blaze, I think, was Barnes’ brother, and he says as he jumped out the window, his clothes were on fire, and he just tore his clothes off.”
Walter Barnes, a Vicksburg native, says that nine members of his orchestra died, as did the club owner, his wife and a generation in and around Natchez.
“At the time of its occurrence, it was like the second deadliest structural fire ever in this country,” said White.
Victims who could be identified and whose family could afford it were buried in graves at the Watkins Street Cemetery.
Other fire victims who were unrecognizable were buried in mass graves in the cemetery, which is now covered with overgrowth.
“It was a building made of tin,” said Monroe Sago. “Tin roof, tin sides is why it was so intense. It had a wooden structure. Two-by-fours and different things. Everything in it was wood.”
“Because of the sacrifices made by those 209 people, building and fire safety codes throughout the nation changed,” added White.
At the time of the fire, there were no building occupancy restrictions. Fire marshals now limit the number of people allowed in a structure. Safety codes require doors to open outward to prevent people from being trapped.
Exit signs must be marked and lit.
The tragedy helped lead to the development of panic bar door exits which automatically open locked doors for safe escape.
WATCH “The Rhythm Club Fire Documentary” on YouTube for more information.