There’s a story that needs to be told

April 24, 2015

Me, I’m a fool for history.  Show me a place where something really happened and tell me the story so I can see it in my mind and I’ll be your friend forever, even if the story is sad.  So much has happened where I live that I’ve always got plenty to read but there’s one bit of regional history that I haven’t found captured in books.  It’s time someone wrote about the Rhythm Club Fire.

It happened seventy-five years ago today, in Natchez, Mississippi.  Natchez was a medium-sized county seat then of about fifteen thousand people, sixty percent of whom were African-American.  Because this was during the cruel and moronic Jim Crow period, the town was effectively split along racial lines and white and black people co-existed with a minimum of interaction.  The divide was so deep, I’ll bet that almost half of Natchez had no idea their town was known as a place for great music.

A few years before, a group of African-American entrepreneurs (self named, The Money-Wasters Social Club) had turned a long narrow building in the business section of town into a nightspot called The Rhythm Club.  The place may not have looked like much from the outside with its tin walls and shuttered windows and the interior decorations consisted of Spanish Moss draped from the rafters, but people didn’t go there to look.   This was the era of swing music and the Money-Wasters made the Rhythm Club a regular stop for black dance-bands touring the South.   The Rhythm Club became the local place to go to hear music, cut loose and have fun, until April 23, 1940.

That night, the Rhythm club was stuffed with people, despite the sixty-five cent admission: Walter Barnes, a gifted musician and band leader was there with his orchestra and seven hundred or so people, including some music students and their teachers, had found their way through the front door entrance to the dance hall in back so they could hear the great band play.  Then around eleven thirty, a spark by the hamburger stand and only exit caught that dry, Spanish Moss draped through the rafters.  Now dry plants are potential fuel already but this stuff had been sprayed with a petroleum based insecticide so it was essentially a match waiting to be struck.  The flames started shooting across the ceiling, people began to scream and run but the fire was between them and the exits.  Walter Barnes and his orchestra tried to calm the crowd with music, but they were trapped in with that inferno.  Over 200 people died in that fifteen minute fire, including the bandleader, Walter Barnes.

The aftermath was horrendous.  The local hospital and the black undertakers are overrun with victims and some of the burned are sent home without treatment.  At least 60 of the dead couldn’t be identified and were buried in an unmarked, mass grave outside of town.  The newspapers arrived, along with the Red Cross but there isn’t a lot of follow up.  And all of this leads to questions.

How did the town of Natchez deal with this hideous tragedy?  Were the lost and injured remembered by all or was the event seen only through the the filter of segregation?   What happened to the black power structure of Natchez after that night took so many of its members?  What treatment was available or recommended for someone with serious burns at that time?  How did the injured recover?  Did they recover?  How do you go on living after coming through something like that?

A small museum, a handful of websites and one or two films talk about the tragedy but I haven’t located any books that research this subject in-depth.  Creating one would be a job for a historian who can devote years to the project but it’s a subject well worth chasing.  If reading books about disaster has taught me anything, it’s taught me these stories are so much more than about how people died; they’re about how people lived, what they cared about and why they should be remembered.  I hope somebody writes about Rhythm Club Fire because I want to read that book.

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