Our Family History Story, Part 3

Silenced Forever


Our family history story, part 3 continues: 




Joyce ("Genealogy Grandma") writes:

Silenced Forever

In the 30’s Aunt Dorothy married an up-and-coming orchestra leader, Walter Barnes. Walter’s niece told me they met when Aunt Dorothy worked as his secretary.  See the happy couple, below:


Walter and Dorothy Barnes, 1930s - from Aunt Dorothy's photo album



Walter's orchestra was known as the Royal Creolians. The band played for various black clubs throughout the Chicago area, the South, and at the Cotton Club in New York City.  Below, is a photo of the band:



Walter Barnes & The Royal Creolians



In addition to his black audiences, Walter often played for the infamous Al Capone, at Capone’s club in Cicero, IL.

However, on the night of April 23, 1940, Walter and the Royal Creolians were silenced forever. Walter, along with most of his band, and almost 200 club patrons perished in a great fire at a club known as, The Rhythm Night Club, in Natchez, MS.

Check out this clip from a new documentary about the Rhythm Night Club fire:

My aunt, for some unknown reason--and never explained to me, did not accompany Walter on the trip to Natchez and consequently her life was saved.

Had she been there--more than likely--she would have perished, too.  And without Dorothy, our family history might not have been archived.

According to the filmmaker of The Rhythm Club Fire, Bryan Burch, the fire was caused by decorations the nightclub which included Spanish moss.  The dance hall was decorated by the manger, Ed Frazier.

I'd thought previously that they sprayed the moss with kerosene to keep the mosquitoes away.  However, I've since learned from Mr. Burch that it was "Flit"--a petroleum-based insecticide.  It is believed that during the evening a patron touched the moss with a lighted cigarette and started the fire.

When the fire broke out the crowd rushed to the only door to exit the room and get out of harm’s way, but the door opened inward and not out. As the crowd pushed, they trapped themselves into a deadly inferno.

Survivors stated Walter and the orchestra played the song, “Marie” to try to quiet the crowd, but the people panicked and most perished.

Everyone in Natchez either knew or was related to someone who died at the club. Still, today, 70 years later, Natchez, MS, holds a memorial to honor their lost loved ones.

The Chicago Defender, a well-known Chicago black newspaper--which Walter contributed articles about his travels-- stated 15,000 people viewed Walter’s remains.

My aunt never remarried, and even though she had various relationships with other musicians throughout her life, she always referred to herself as, Dorothy V. Barnes, the widow of the late Walter Barnes.

Return to "Our Family History Story", Part 1

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Part 2    Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8   Part 9

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