Episode 82 Natchez Burnin’ The Rhythm Club Fire of 1940

The Natchez Rhythm Club changed the city of Natchez on April 23rd 1940. 209 people died and more than 200 were injured including civic and cultural leaders. All of the victims of one of the deadliest fires in US history were Black.

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In 1956, Howlin’ Wolf recorded ‘The Natchez Burnin’, a musical memorial to the victims of a night club tragedy in the 1940s. Howlin Wolf asks “Did you ever hear about the burning, that happened way down in Natchez Mississippi town?” 

On April 23rd 1940, 700 people crowded into the Rhythm Club in the Black business district of Saint Catherine Street in Natchez. Just before midnight a fire in the club injured over 200 people. And killed 209. All of the victims were Black. 

The loss of life and injuries sustained in the Rhythm Club fire impacted the lives of folks from Chicago on down to New Orleans because of the power of music and a generation of leaders, and leaders in the making, who were in the club and never made it home.

Including band leader, Walter Barnes.

Barnes was born in Vicksburg Mississippi in 1905. In 1922, his parents relocated to Chicago. Barnes finished school and turned to his passion….music. He played clarinet and saxophone and studied at the Chicago Musical College.

By 1926, Walter Barnes had joined Jelly Roll Morton’s band and eventually became bandleader. Barnes’ band was unique because of their jazz arrangements for brass-based instruments. They were respected by fellow musicians for how they arranged and selected music. Their music influenced other bands, including Duke Ellington’s.

Within a few years, Barnes and his band became the first Black band to broadcast live on Chicago radio, thanks to the help of his self processed sponsor, Al Capone.

Barnes fronted the house band at Capone’s Cotton Club. Capone told Barnes he should head to radio station WHFC to arrange a live broadcast from the club. The station took one look at Barnes and told him, “We don’t air colored people.”

The next day, Walter Barnes and Al Capone walked into WHFC and Capone told the station manager his policy was changing and he’d be airing Walter’s band live from Capone’s club. The manager quickly agreed and Walter Barnes and his thirteen-piece Royal Creolians were heard playing live many times on WHFC.

Along with his musical talent, Walter Barnes was a columnist for the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most influential Black weekly newspaper. His column was a guide for traveling black bands in the South. As he toured with his band, he learned firsthand which venues accepted Black musicians and artists.

Walter Barnes – Chicago Defender. March 23, 1935

Barnes was part of a larger circuit known as the Chitlin’ Circuit, adding to the collection of venues where Black musicians, comedians and entertainers knew they would have commercial and cultural acceptance to tour. The Chitlin’ Circuit and Barnes’ contribution opened up new opportunities for Black business, including the popular circuit of clubs musicians could tour and play along the route from Chicago to New Orleans.

Despite Natchez being a small town of only 14,000 in the 1940s, it was the perfect place to stop and play a filler show along that route which meant the Rhythm Club and other clubs and juke joints along Saint Catherine Street would come alive with music on any given night.

St. Catherine Street Marker

Darrell White is the Director of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African American History and Culture. Mr. White says the historical importance of Saint Catherine Street reaches beyond the rich musical history. He says there’s no other street in the nation that can compare to the history of this street.

That’s because at the beginning of Saint Catherine street, you have the Forks of the Road which was the second largest and busiest slave market in the country. As you move up the Street there’s houses of worship and businesses that catered to the Black community in the late 18th century well into the 19th century. There were also homes of prominent free people of color who lived along Saint Catherine Street before the Civil War.

Advertisement for slave sales at the Forks of the Road from the Natchez Daily Courier, November 27, 1858.

Along with the Rhythm Club, there was a school for Black children and at the end of the street, Zion AME church. An early pastor of this church, Reverend Hiram Revels, became the first black person to serve in the US Senate, elected in 1870.

Darrell White notes that within less than a mile, on this one street, you go from slavery to the US Senate.

Hiram Revels Photo: Public Domain

Ed Frazier was the operator and event organizer for Rhythm Club. He booked Walter Barnes & His Royal Creolians to play the dance hall on April 23, 1940. Barnes and his orchestra were wrapping up a tour and Natchez was the perfect place to stop for a show along the way.

By 1940, Walter Barnes’ reputation as a musician and columnist meant he and his band were in high demand. Excitement ran wild in Natchez and across the Mississippi River in Vidalia, Louisiana. Tickets sold quickly and Ed Frazier prepared the club for what he knew would be a packed house. 

The Rhythm Club was a simple looking structure. The 4,500-square-foot building had originally been an auto repair garage and had at one time been used as a church. Then, it was converted into the Rhythm Club, a single story wood framed building covered with corrugated metal sheets. 

Artist rendering of the Rhythm Club Photo: Digital Design House

There were two entrances, both in the front portion of the building, but Ed Frazier made some adjustments in preparation for a large crowd.

To ensure no one entered without paying, he padlocked one of the entrances so there would only be one way in and one way out of the long and narrow structure. Frazier also closed up the shutters covering most of the windows and either latched them or nailed them shut to make sure no one could sneak in without paying. 

Frazier decorated the exterior with lights and covered the interior with dried Spanish moss that’s synonymous with the oak trees around Natchez. Spanish moss is known for its dramatic look but it’s also known for the little insects that thrive inside it. Ed Frazier sprayed the moss with FLIT, a petroleum based insecticide. It was then suspended from wires that ran along the overhead rafters. 

On April 23rd, hundreds of people made their way to The Rhythm Club. Between ticket pre-sales, VIP passes, club attendants and the members of the band and orchestra, there were nearly 750 people in the hall when the concert began. The average age of the people who attended the show was between 15 and 25 years old.

Walter Barnes tour bus parked down the street from The Rhythm Club

All up and down Saint Catherine Street and surrounding blocks, folks could hear the shouts and stomping and the music coming from the Rhythm Club. The night was everything so many young people had hoped it would be. Just a fun and carefree Tuesday night at the dance hall.

One of those nights that makes you feel so alive. 

Just after 10pm, Walter Barnes and his band began to play on the stage at the far end of the dance floor, just opposite the main entrance. Bartenders were busy serving up drinks and the crowd covered the dance floor.

Shortly after 11 p.m., all the joy of the night turned to horror.

A fire started near the hamburger grill that was positioned near the front door. The only entrance and exit. A spark from the fire ignited the Spanish moss hanging in the dance hall and fire spread quickly because the moss, sprayed with FLIT, generated flammable methane gas. 

The fire spread over the heads of the people inside with the moss falling on victims, igniting their clothes and hair as they tried to find a way out. 

When Ed Frazier created his one way in and one way out single door option, they had unknowingly created a dance hall and lobby that became a choke point for the fire. The front door swung inward and flames blocked the door, pushing victims to the back of the building near the orchestra stage. When they tried windows as another way to escape, they found them nailed shut.

A majority of those who died were found near the main stage with Walter Barnes and nine of his band members, or under windows.

A woman holds a section of Spanish moss that wasn’t consumed by the fire.

Once they got the call, it took the volunteer fire department less than fifteen minutes to extinguish the Rhythm Club fire. Fire fighters would later say the screams they heard coming from inside would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Of the 209 people who died as a result of the Rhythm Club fire, doctors found the most common cause of death was suffocation by smoke inhalation. Many died as the result of being crushed as the crowd was pushed to the back of the building.

The loss of life was overwhelming but Jim Crow laws came into play and made the pain of loss greater for the Black community. In the midst of unimaginable grief, there were issues with the handling of bodies. Segregation laws complicated burials and funerals.

Under segregation, only Black morticians were allowed to handle the body of a Black person. At the time, there were only three Black owned and operated funeral homes in Natchez and they were overwhelmed. Black undertakers from surrounding communities volunteered to help Natchez care for and bury the dead but some burials were complicated by the state of the remains.

Within the first few hours of searching for remains inside the Rhythm Club, firefighters and volunteers recovered as many bodies as they could but some victims had been burned beyond recognition.

Officials laid out remains on Saint Catherine Street and there was concern over the danger of infection. Officials ruled unidentifiable remains had to be buried quickly in a mass grave in Watkins Street Cemetery.

Isle of Capri Casino staff members raised money to fund a memorial that now stands in Watkins Street Cemetery to mark the mass grave of 60 unknown victims of the fire. Photo: Natchez Democrat, 2012

As identification was made, those who had insurance policies and burial contracts were buried first. A majority of the victims of the Rhythm Club fire were young, between 15 to 25 years old. They had plans for life, not final plans in case of death.

The cause of the Rhythm Club fire was never confirmed but witness statements and the fire investigation led authorities to believe the fire was accidental.

The investigation revealed the venue was over crowded but in 1940 there were no occupancy restrictions. There was only one exit and the doors in the building were not designed to open out. Even if the second door had been unlocked, it may not have helped people escape the fire. 

A part of the legacy of the men and women who died that night in Natchez, is that the city vowed to make changes that would prevent another tragedy of this kind. 

Fire prevention and protection became a renewed priority in Natchez with the establishment of a fire department. They established building occupancy codes and ensured all doors could open outward.

In 1940, the Rhythm Club Fire was the 2nd deadliest fire in US history and cities around the nation followed the lead of Natchez, establishing fire building and safety codes to save lives.

Rhythm Club Memorial Museum, Natchez Photo: Shannon Ballard

These days in downtown Natchez, you can head to the area known as the “Triangle” to see the site where the Rhythm Club once stood.

At Number 5 St. Catherine Street there’s a one room memorial museum created by Monroe Sago. He wants the history of the Rhythm Night Club fire to be told for generations to come. He’s collected newspaper articles about the fire and photos of victims donated by family members to help him tell the story of the Rhythm Club.

Photo: Shannon Ballard

Rhythm Night Club Victims

Abraham McNeilJohn Davis
Agnes DorseyJohn Reed
Albert ConferJohnnie Boy Logan
Alberta HardenJohnny Davis
Alfred MinorJohnny H. Guy
Alice WashingtonJohnny Williams
Alma CheekeJos Hagan, Jr.
Alma SpringsJoseph Lorenzo Harris
Alonza Elijah DickersonJosephine Cain Jackson
Andrew GlasperJosh Johnson
Annabelle EllisJuanita Avery
Annabelle Fisher KnightJuanita Gilbert
Annie Laurel CarterJulia Wilson
Annie Mae RobinsonJunius Scott
Arthur SmithKatherine Haymond
Beatrice HolmesKatherine Wright
Beatrice JonesKatie Adams Freeman
Beatrice SimsKatie Louise Matthews
Ben LewisLee Edgar Scott
Bennetter DennisLee Woods
Bernetta LloydLenola Williams
Bernice WilsonLeola Johnson
Bessie Lee Mont. BanksLeola Sims
Bige WareLeonard Franklin
Birdie L.H. BoydLeonard Moore
Calvin RobertsLillie Mae Weather
Camille OtenLloyd Johnson
Carrie WoodsLouise Kates
Casiana TurnipseedLucille Flisby
Charles HigdonLucille Jackson
Charles McKinneyLucille Stewart
Charley Light, Jr.Mable Etta White
Charlie ScottMajorie Alexander
Clarence Peter MaziqueMarcus Farr
Clarence PorterMargaret Washington
Clarence Scott, Jr.Marie Hall
Clarice BucknerMarie Jackson
Cloveland Leon BookerMarie Louise Sloan
Cora Mae WashingtonMarion Roderick
Corinne PowellMarshall Eddie Lewis
Corinthia DorseyMarshall Mason
Dan WashingtonMary Christmas
David NicholsonMary E. Logan
David WimberlyMary Gladys Russell
Delia KellyMary Jackson
Della Ardella QuinnMatilda Woods
Dora HollidayMcKinley Kingsberry
Dorothy B. DanceMeletta Travis Carroll
Dorothy HaywoodMildred Russell
Ed FrazierMildred Squalls
Edna James TaylorMildred Stanton
Edward Lawrence ParkerMose Nelson
Edward OtenNance Crockett, Jr.
Elbert Briggs, Jr.Nelson Phillips
Eleanor DacusNollie Carr
Elijah V. BriscoeNorah Elliot, Jr.
Elizabeth MitchellNorman McFarland
Ella Blanton WilliamsOdelle Brown
Eloise JohnsonOliver Handy
Emma ScottOliver Handy
Emma ShawPaul Stott
Ernest HuntPearcy Rowan
Ethel BurnesPearl E. Jackson
Ethel LyonsPolly Louise Coleman
Ethel ScottR. L. Johnson
Eva SimpsonRichard V. Hall
Evelyn ThomasRobert Brooks
Everett HogattRobert Lee Russell
Fannie Dorsey BrownRobert Washington
Florida Lee IvyRosalie Grey
Florine JacksonRoy Hudson
Frances LloydRuth Reedy Brown
Frances McNeilSam Colston
Frank TolesSamuel Crockett
Fred ScottSamuel James Collins
Freddie ScottSamuel Wallace
Genevieve CollinsSarah Banks Robinson
George Minor, Jr.Serena Pollard
George Scott, Jr.St. F. Lmo Adams
Geraldine TonckedSusie Alexander
German MatthewsT. J. Smith
Gladys LightThelma Lewis
Green Smith, Jr.Thelma Lloyd
Harriet HacketTom Johnson, Jr.
Harry WalkerVera Rhone
Helen GauldenVernon McMillian
Henrietta DavisWalter J. Barnes
Henry FarrWarren Dorsey
Henry Jackson, Jr.Wendell Kates
Hortense BrooksWilbert Ernest Johnson
Ida Mae Woods BernardWillie Beatrice Roach
Inez AdamsWillie Campbell
James ColeWillie Gibson
James JohnsonWillie Lindsey
James Jordan, Jr.Willie Lloyd
James M. EllisWillie Mae Jackson
Janie Bishop AdamsWillie McShane
Jesse WashingtonWillie Scott
Jessie Edna GreenWillie Scott
Jessie O. WashingtonWillie Simon
Joe BarnesWoodrich McGuire
John Bernard, Jr.Zealie Bossika Williams

Sources

A Nightclub, A Fire…And a Generation Vanishes. Firehouse. October 27, 2010.

80 years later: Remembering the deadly Rhythm Club fire. Fire Rescue 1. April 23, 2020

Joos, Vincent. (2019) The Natchez fire: a profile of African American remembrance in a small Mississippi town. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences, Department of American Studies, Folklore Program

Papa Lightfoot-Natchez. Mississippi Blues Commission.

The Century’s Worst Fires. New York Times. March 26, 1990.  

Rhythm Club fire. Wikipedia. September 10, 2017 

Survivors Tell of Fight at Natchez Fire. Delta Democrat-Times. April 25, 1940

Nobody Knows where the Blues Come from: Lyrics and History. (2007). United States: University Press of Mississippi.

Music

Somber Ballads and Long Road Ahead B by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Source: http://incompetech.com/. Pale Rider by Blues Mini Vandals; Burden Laid Down by The Westerlies; Fresh Fallen Snow by Chris Haugen; Lost Cowboy by Coyote Hearing. Licensed Under Creative Commons. Beginnings in Dust, Devouring the Whole by Ross Gentry. Courtesy Headway Recordings Asheville.  The Natchez Burning by Howlin’ Wolf. The Complete RPM & Chess Singles A’s & B’s 1951-62, Vol. 1 ℗ 2014 Acrobat Licensing Ltd. The Natchez Fire by Gene Gilmore. Originally issued on the 1940 single (Decca 7763) (78 RPM). “It’s Tight Like That” by Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians. 1928.

Correction: Gene Gilmore is the artist who performed the 1940 version of The Natchez Fire. He was incorrectly mentioned as George Gilmore.



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