A Nightclub, A Fire...And a Generation Vanishes

  Natchez, MS, is a charming city, full of the Antebellum pre-Civil War southern mystique and atmosphere found in only the rarest parts of America's historical past. A quick glance of the inner city will stir emotions and make you blink your eyes in...


  Natchez, MS, is a charming city, full of the Antebellum pre-Civil War southern mystique and atmosphere found in only the rarest parts of America's historical past. A quick glance of the inner city will stir emotions and make you blink your eyes in disbelief that such beauty still exists...


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Natchez, MS, is a charming city, full of the Antebellum pre-Civil War southern mystique and atmosphere found in only the rarest parts of America's historical past. A quick glance of the inner city will stir emotions and make you blink your eyes in disbelief that such beauty still exists. But beneath the beauty lies a dark past leaving an impression that even here life is not safe from the ravages of fire. This is a unique look of 70 years of a fire's history that continues to present itself in vivid memory in this community.

The City of Natchez is the oldest established town on the Mississippi River, founded in 1716 as a fort. In the 1850s, it was a flourishing cotton-growing center, supported by the brisk trading brought via riverboats. Lately, Natchez has become famous for the abundance of its well-preserved Antebellum mansions, many of which are visited by thousands of tourists each year.

The Rhythm Night Club tragedy has not been at the forefront of the city's history. Despite the profound tragedy of the fire and its high death toll, news about the disaster could not compete against the Nazi war machine capturing the headlines with its invasion of key parts of Europe in 1940.

To put things into perspective, with 209 fatalities, this fire and resultant loss of life figures into America's second-highest loss of life in a nightclub-based incident, after the fire at Boston's Cocoanut Grove in Boston, MA, in 1942 that claimed 492 lives.

On April 23, 1940, the Rhythm Night Club was going to come alive with a popular swing band from Chicago, IL, for a one-night performance. It was a Tuesday evening, but that didn't matter to the dance hall attendees, as they had this rare chance to be entertained by the music of Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians. Barnes was a home state native from Vicksburg, and became successful in the music business. In fact, he and his band were regular performers at Al Capone's Cotton Club in downtown Cicero, IL, for years.

Barnes' music was in high demand throughout much of the live-music industry. He and his band were regular recording artists on the Brunswick label. They enjoyed immense respect from other musicians and bands of that time for their unique application of jazz arrangements for brass-based instruments. In fact, Barnes' music influenced the bands that were to follow his unique style. Duke Ellington's band adopted a similar style of musical selections and arrangements.

The Rhythm Night Club was charging 50 cents apiece for tickets in advance. At the door a ticket cost 65 cents. Records indicate that 577 paid admissions were taken in and 150 passes were also given out. Add to those figures 14 band members and five attendants. The overall total population for that evening was 746 people, packed into a 120-by-38-foot building.

The building had served two other purposes before it became a popular night club for the black community. It was a church and then a garage where automobiles were maintained and repaired for several years.

The construction of the building was interesting, as noted by the Mississippi State Rating Bureau when it conducted an after-fire report for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). It was constructed by using nothing but two-by-fours with multiple sheets of corrugated metal serving as the exterior walls and roofing material. The interior was lined with one-inch ship-lap material, approximately five feet in height, around the building's walls. The floor was of wood construction, suitable for dancing. Underneath the wooden floor were poured-concrete slabs. Long stud-bolts were sunk into the concrete to help secure the floor. The ceiling was open to the roofline. All of the rafters and joists were exposed. A large number of ceiling fans and electrical lights were hung throughout the structure. Decorations could be easily hung and suspended via the open trusswork.

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