On April 23, 1940, 16-year-old Alice Kastor and her friends had tickets to see Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians—a popular jazz orchestra from Chicago who were playing at the Black-owned Rhythm Night Club in their hometown of Natchez, Miss. The club, which was no more than a large wooden building encased in corrugated iron, sat at the center of her community on St. Catherine Street amid the confluence of churches, barbershops, saloons and funeral homes.
Like many other high-school students in the Black community, Alice was thrilled. She loved all kinds of music, especially jazz, and that Tuesday evening she and a group of friends headed to the club with youthful anticipation.
It was intermission when Alice and her friends arrived, so they decided to go to a sandwich shop to get something to eat. It turned out to be a fateful decision. A short time later, they were jolted out of their seats when they heard a man running down the street yelling “the Rhythm Club is on fire!” She immediately headed in the direction of the club and got there just before firemen arrived.
The fire was put out within minutes. But it had just as swiftly taken more than 200 young Black lives, including many of her friends—some of her classmates from St. Francis Catholic school as well as students from Brumfield, the Black public high school. In the wee hours of the night and on the following day, she replayed the horror of what happened in her mind. Her family’s home, adjacent to the Rhythm Night Club, was so close that she saw dead bodies lying in the yard next to the club.
“I have nightmares about it,” she told me in 2022, vividly recalling the searchlights that shone into the dance hall revealing bodies stacked high against the front door. They were also in the back of the club near the bandstand where young men and women fought each other trying to escape through windows that had been boarded up to keep out non-paying customers.
As If It Happened Yesterday
Over the next couple of days, the Red Cross called on young Alice to go to the three nearby funeral homes to help identify bodies. Some of the victims were easy to identify, she says now, because they had died of asphyxiation or were scalded by the steam created when water from the firehose hit the corrugated tin that encased the wooden structure.
Others were charred beyond recognition. Hours earlier, those same young people she identified had been dancing to the music of the Walter Barnes jazz orchestra and reveling in the last days of the school year.
Alice Kastor Campbell is now 99 years old. When I interviewed her in February 2023 for her memories of the fire, the details were as clear as if it had happened yesterday.
Yet she, like so many who lived with the aftermath of the fire in Natchez, never truly understood its national significance. And why would they? The Black community of Natchez was absolutely devastated by the loss of life from which it never fully recovered. There were more pressing issues.
Black Press Documented the Victims
The Rhythm Night Club fire was not only the deadliest club fire in the history of the United States when it occurred; it was the only such fire in which all the victims were Black, and it remains one of the deadliest club fires in the nation’s history. The reason we know what we know about the fire is not because of the white media, who waved off the tragedy as something that happened to “negroes.”
Rather, journalists from the leading Black newspapers around the country, including the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News, traveled to Natchez and provided extensive coverage of not only the fire, but also its victims.
David Kellum of the Chicago Defender, for example, went with a photographer, not only to report what happened, but to humanize the story through interviews with victims’ families. Kellum and others also sought to draw attention to what they believed to be the root cause of the fire: Jim Crow. Racial segregation, they demanded, had led to this tragedy because safety codes that would have shut down a fire trap like the Rhythm Night Club were not used to protect the Black community.
A Place Apart from Whiteness
For Black Americans across the country, the Rhythm Night Club fire resonated on a more personal level. Black-owned clubs were a place apart from the white community, a space of joy and where they could freely express themselves. In the years prior to the modern Civil Rights Movement, places like the Rhythm NIght Club were important to the Black community because they not only provided a place to dance and listen to music performed by Black artists, but it also offered them a reprieve from the daily insults of segregation.
The tragedy of the fire, therefore, was a stark reminder that Jim Crow neglect could even taint these spaces.
Of course, the loss of life was devastating, too, with mostly young people losing their lives. Based on my research of the official count of 209 victims, which I believe underreports the total number of those who died, their average age was just 24. There were several high-school students, and at least one victim was only 12 years old, but the majority were in their early 20s and worked as porters for local stores or as maids or cooks in the homes of white Natchezians.
Several of them had children, who were left orphaned. It is not hyperbole to write that an entire generation of young people were lost to the fire. Across the country, Black Americans expressed sympathy with what occurred in Natchez, as well as concern that a similar tragedy could befall their own communities. As they saw it, the system of Jim Crow was literally stealing the lives of a new generation of Black Americans.
Although white Natchezians raised money and provided Black families with assistance in the immediate aftermath of the fire, racial cooperation was a brief response to the tragedy, and did nothing to alter the rigidity of Jim Crow. As Leedell Neyland wrote in his memoir “Unquenchable Black Fires,” “Natchez gradually returned to normal, to the segregation and discrimination which had laid the groundwork for the black holocaust at the Rhythm Club.”
Most Americans are unfamiliar with the story of the Rhythm Night Club fire, but what happened continues to reside in the memory of Alice Kastor and the collective memory of her former hometown. As she recalled, there were no more dances, and no more bands came to Natchez for years after the fire. Her youth was cut short. And the fire’s damage extended beyond the loss of life, as grief replaced joy.
As Natchez once again remembers the victims of the Rhythm Night Club fire 83 years later this week, Mississippians and Americans more generally should stop to think about why they are unfamiliar with this tragedy and its significance to southern and American history.
The 83rd commemoration of the Rhythm Night Club fire of April 23, 1940, is at noon on Saturday, April 22, 2023, at the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum (5 St. Catherine St., Natchez, Miss.) For more information, click here.
Karen L. Cox is a historian who is writing a book about the Rhythm Night Club fire. She is also the author of “Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South.” She earned her PhD in U.S. history from the University of Southern Mississippi.
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