The Story of the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum
Words By Roscoe Barnes III, Ph.D.
When Monroe and Betty Sago purchased a piece of land over 40 years ago in Natchez, Mississippi, they didn’t know about the stories tied to the property. Monroe wanted to open an auto detail shop and Betty, a teacher in the local school district, wanted to support him, but a strange thing happened as they were cleaning the property.
In 1983, Monroe and a friend were cutting the grass when they brought in a backhoe to help clear the grounds. To their surprise, when they dug into the grass, they hit a solid object. It turned out to be a concrete slab.
“I thought it was a foundation for a house,” Monroe recalls. “But a few weeks later, I learned it was the site of the Rhythm Night Club fire.”
For years following that discovery, customers came into Monroe’s shop and told stories of the fire that occurred at that location—#5 St. Catherine Street—on April 23, 1940. It was a fire that resulted in the deaths of 209 people, including famous bandleader Walter Barnes and eight members of his band.
“I did not know the history until people started telling me about it,” Monroe says. “Some said, ‘You need to do something with this property.’ ‘Don’t let people buy it from you.’ Some said, ‘You need to bring it back to life.’ ”
The Sagos heard from many people, some of whom who were survivors, who encouraged them to open a museum. However, Monroe kept detailing cars until one day his wife asked, “If we don’t build it, who will?”
Today, thanks to Monroe and Betty, the story of the fire is being told through the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum. The couple built and developed the museum in 2010 on the actual site of the original building. They have also written a book about the fire: "A True Story: 70 Years Journey from the Rhythm Night Club Fire 1940 to the Rhythm Night Club (On Site) Memorial Museum" (2013).
“We want to honor the victims that lost their lives and the survivors who went on to build their lives in some way,” says Betty. “Walter Barnes was a hero as he kept playing in that frightening situation. It’s important for musicians—and people everywhere—to know what happened here.”
Walter Barnes is immortalized in songs by Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and other performers.
Night of the Fire
In 1940, the Rhythm Night Club was owned by Ed Frazier, who was undoubtedly happy to secure the services of Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians. His club “was a hot spot for many socialites in Natchez,” says Monroe. In her article, “The Greatest Tragedy Ever to Strike the Race,” historian Karen Cox writes that “Barnes, originally from Vicksburg, was a contemporary of Duke Ellington, and while the Creolians had not achieved the same status as Ellington’s orchestra, they were still very popular.” She notes the band “had recorded music for Brunswick Records, and could draw a large crowd, which they did on the night of April 23rd.”
Seven hundred people turned out for the event, including teens and teachers from Brumfield High School, black laborers, and black professionals. They poured into the dance hall, a corrugated tin building, with the hopes of having a great time. The crude structure was decorated with Spanish moss on the ceiling. Frazier had boarded up most of the windows to keep people from sneaking into the building and to prevent them from peeping inside. The front door was the only exit and it opened inward.
Around midnight, the building caught fire and people panicked as they tried to get out. The flames spread throughout the building.
“As the fire spread across the ceiling, the people scampered around the club in utter confusion trying to find an exit,” write the Sagos in their book. “Many patrons went back into the burning building to get their loved ones and never returned.”
In an effort to bring calm, Barnes and his band continued to play. Their last song was "Marie" by Irving Berlin. By the time the fire was extinguished, more than 200 people lay dead, including Barnes and eight of his band members. Frazier, the club’s owner, also died. In addition to the fire, many had died from the steam caused by the water from the fire hoses that struck the tin building. Some of the victims were trampled and some died of asphyxiation. Many bodies, which were unrecognizable, were buried in a mass grave at Watkins Street Cemetery.
It is believed the fire was caused by a cigarette discarded near the bathroom at the front of the building. The fire spread to the Spanish moss, which had been sprayed with a flammable insecticide known as “Flit.”
Telling the Story
Today, the story of the fire is being told through photographs, old newspaper articles, artifacts, historical panels, and tours given by Monroe and Betty in the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum. Although located on the exact site of the 1940 dance hall, the museum is actually smaller than the original building.
When the couple decided to open the museum, Monroe became obsessed with the history, according to Betty. Ask him anything about the fire, and he, like a Southern preacher, will burst into a passionate narrative.
“I just love telling the story, because it’s important, and it’s something that everybody needs to know,” Monroe says. “People come here in cars and vans from all over.”
A historical marker, presented by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, now stands in front of the museum. The site is a favorite attraction of students and tourists. In addition to watching recordings of oral history from survivors, visitors can take in the music the band played on that fateful night.
Since 2010, Monroe and Betty have hosted a commemorative gathering in April. During this public event, they award scholarships of $500 or more to Mississippi-Louisiana area high school students who visit the museum and write a winning essay about their experience and their knowledge of the fire.
“Essentially, we want to see what they have learned about this important piece of history,” says Betty. “The students with the winning essay are asked to provide a copy of their first semester grades (from college) to be kept on file at the museum.”
In 2021, the Mississippi Humanities Council awarded the museum $14,160 in a grant through the ARP (American Rescue Plan) Humanities Recovery grant program. The funding is being used to purchase supplies and to help enhance the interpretive experience at the site.
According to Monroe, when people visit the museum, they also have interest in other sites in Natchez. Located in the southwest part of the state, Natchez is one of the oldest continuous settlements on the Mississippi River. It is known for its historic homes, its famous garden clubs, the Forks of the Road slave market, and the city’s role in the civil rights movement. However, for many tourists, there is something nostalgic and even compelling about the night club fire.
“The fire had a devastating impact on the Natchez community, but it’s a piece of the city’s history that should not be forgotten,” Monroe says. Although most of the survivors have passed, the memories of that fateful night are still alive and well. Monroe talks about a woman named Augustine Jackson George, who used to stop and pray whenever she walked past his property.
“We were washing cars one morning back in the 1990s, and it was 105 degrees,” Monroe recalls. “We saw this lady who had knelt down and prayed. I thought she was crazy to do that on that hot concrete. So, I walked over and asked what she was doing.”
“Help me up, baby,” she said, as she struggled to her feet. “I’m going to pray when I come up the street and pray when I come down the street—because I got out alive.”
“That encounter,” says Monroe, “illustrates what this museum is all about: honoring the memory of those who perished and those who came out alive.”