The Natchez Fire: African American Remembrance through Interviews, Photographs, and Songs

Article excerpt

On April 23, 1940, Melchior Beltzhoover Jr., a respected local businessman and a volunteer fireman from Natchez, Mississippi, spent the evening at the home of his fiancée Mary Jane Butler. Strolling back home, enjoying the balmy spring night in the peaceful downtown streets perched on the bluffs dominating the Mississippi River, he passed by the fire station on Commerce Street and heard the phone ringing. Knowing that the firemen were sound asleep upstairs, he ran into the station and answered the call, learning that a fire was devouring the Rhythm Club, an African American dance hall located on Saint Catherine Street, less than half a mile away. Beltzhoover promptly sounded the fire alarm, roused his colleagues, and rushed to the scene. But it was already too late. The fire had already taken the life of more than two hundred people, most of them young African Americans, students from the surrounding high schools and colleges who had come to the club to celebrate the end of the school year by jitterbugging to the tunes of then famous Chicago swing jazz band leader Walter Barnes.

This article and the accompanying photographs survey the history of the Natchez Fire, especially through the memories it generates among African Americans even today. Living in Natchez from 2006 to 2011,1 learned that the Natchez Fire was the most recurrent topic of conversations among the African American community and became assimilated into the folklore and history of the city. My formal inquiry about the fire began with talks with my neighbor, blues musician Jimmy Anderson (seen in photograph 1), who urged me to compile the songs related to the fire. We found a body of blues songs composed by both famous Chicago performers and local musicians. Most of these songs have been carefully studied by Luigi Monge who recently published a detailed textual analysis in which he ponders on the chronology of the publications of these songs (Monge 2007). However, through discussions with Anderson, I learned that the fire-related songs performed by local musicians were more than anonymous eulogies, as they presented intimate pictures of communal loss.

I began doing fieldwork about Natchez using these scores and other related documents and also traced the disaster and its immediate aftermath. Among the documents I unearthed, Leedell Neyland's self-published account of the Natchez Fire, Unquenchable Black Fires, helped me to realize that the fire was not an event circumscribed in time and place, but a haunting collective memory that encompassed a brutal history of inequality and a deep sense of communal loss. Neyland, who is the last male survivor of the fire, wrote a detailed memoir where the "names of people and places have been changed" and where main characters' "fictional experiences [...] in a closed Mississippi society are drawn from real experiences" (iv). In this powerful and poignant narrative where the Natchez Fire is the main illustration of "the seemingly unquenchable fires of racial hatred, bigotry and injustice," Neyland describes the social constraints that contributed to the disaster (v). The lack of public spaces where blacks could enjoy cultural events and the absence of recognition of the history of a thriving community depicted by Neyland also surfaced as leitmotif in the conversations I held with my informants during my fieldwork. Talking about the fire meant both to ponder on the conditions of life in a segregated society and to conjure the relatives and friends whose absence is still collectively and individually felt. On the field, remembrances displayed a remarkable unity between the communal and individual memories exposed through songs, photographs and preservation efforts. The rich folklore of today's Natchez black community is not the depository of bygone traditions but a dynamic set of artistic and commemorative practices in which a reflection on the past guides present efforts for historical and political recognition.

My preliminary research, conducted jointly with Anderson, opened the way for an extended ethnographic inquiry. …