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She Played a Key Role in the Police Response to the Watts Riots. The Memory Still Haunts Her—But Black History Is Full of Haunting Memories

11 minute read

The thing about protests against police brutality on American soil is that they are cyclical. History is full of attempts by white people to curtail Black mobility—slave patrols, redlining and residential segregation, police surveillance. Black people are tired of it. We been tired. And what happens when you squeeze an already disenfranchised population into a figurative corner? After a while, they explode. The protests that have followed George Floyd’s death in May are one example of such an explosion, but they are not the first.

On Aug. 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye was pulled over on 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, for reckless driving. A crowd of 50 people watched as Frye failed sobriety tests. As the police were about to tow Marquette’s car, his older brother Ronald brought their mother, Rena, to the scene. According to police reports, Marquette was compliant at first, but as soon as his mother and brother showed up, he turned spiteful, saying that they had to kill him to take him to jail. When the officers tried to arrest him, he resisted, and Rena jumped onto an officer’s back. An officer hit Marquette in the head with his baton, drawing blood. The crowd now swelled to almost a thousand people as Marquette, Ronald and Rena were hauled off to jail. The chaos that ensued left 34 people dead, including 23 killed by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers or National Guard troops, as well as 1,032 injured, at least 600 buildings damaged from fires or looting, another 200 buildings completely destroyed, and around 3,500 people arrested. The event is now a specter that hovers over Black Angelenos, the memory still vivid.

Depending on whom you ask, the Watts riots may or may not be called an uprising or rebellion. The pain had been bubbling for far too long. Those who’d seen it were migrants, or their parents had migrated to give them a better life. And yet the problems they fled greeted them in a new area code. Rachelle James, a woman I met when I was researching Black migration to California, told me that Black people were just sick and tired of being sick and tired. By the time they reached Los Angeles, they’d just about had it with racism, and the city served as a pressure cooker for Black rage.

Rachelle wanted me to meet the woman who picked up the first call into the police station when Marquette Frye was being arrested; she has been dealing with the fallout ever since.

Regina is a first-generation Californian, born in 1942 and raised near Watts. Regina’s grandfather, as she succinctly put it, was “an uppity nigga.” He owned an insurance company and made so much money that whites considered him a threat. Fleeing a lynch mob, he gathered his wife and their eight children and moved to California. When Regina’s parents married, her father, whom she described as “damaged by the war,” worked as an elevator starter at the Southern California Edison company, and her mother became a beautician after working as a maid.

By 15, Regina was married, and she had four children by the time she was 19. She became a police dispatcher because her husband had been employed in the same office previously. After applying, taking a test, and being hired in 1962, she worked at the Central Division, which is now the Parker Center, LAPD headquarters. During her probational period, she worked three months on the day shift, one month on night shift and the last month on the graveyard shift. The hours took a toll on her, but not so much as the work culture. She would be put on disciplinary probation for letting her hair hang over one eye or wearing a sleeveless top, and co-workers would shut the door on her as she came through the entrance right behind them. The episode she recalls most vividly involves a dog. “At a different position, answering phones, this little old white lady … was sitting next to me, and she reached in her purse, and she said, ‘Have you ever seen my dog?’ I said no, and she pulled out a little picture of a little dog and showed it and asked, ‘Do you know what his name is?’ And I said ‘No, ma’am,’ and she said, ‘Nigger—he’s black.’”

There were only six Black employees out of 150, she recalled. Her job was to answer phones for the 77th Street Division, responsible for a predominantly Black neighborhood. The district required diligent multi­tasking to alert police of crimes in the area.

“You know, normal nights, come to work at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. As the evening progresses, it got busier. All of a sudden, I hear that this officer needs help. I’m waiting, and nothing. Then an officer comes in on the radio. I say, ‘Please repeat yourself. Who are you? Where are you?’ Nothing. All the pains and knots of losing an officer who needs help. Finally I get him to come in, almost whispering, but it wasn’t much help because the call was so broken up. I guess he was regretting that he started with officer needs help vs. officer needs assistance. Help means BAM [by any means]. Assistance means to get another patrol car down there.” I figured that BAM was needed rather than waiting for a more orderly approach.

“At that point, I screamed out to the boys in the center, ‘I’ve got an officer needs help such and such.’ I finally got his location out of him, and of course they sent another police car, and then they took over from me. But by then every officer in 12 [of the 77th Street division] had heard it and is going completely nuts trying to figure out what it is. So it unfolded in a weird, strange way. I knew though, ’cause, it was 116th and Avalon, and I lived at 118th and Central Avenue, which is not far, O.K.? So I knew the neighborhood. That’s my neighborhood.”

Regina tried to tell her superiors not to escalate the situation, but they did so anyway. To this day, she is haunted by a single question: “Why didn’t they listen to me?”

Armed National Guardsmen force a line of Black men to stand against the wall of a building during the Watts riots
Armed National Guardsmen force a line of Black men to stand against the wall of a building during the Watts riots in 1965Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After work, when Regina ran home, she saw that the grocery store around the corner had been burned down and sparks were still flying from the roof. She made her children stay in the bedroom in the back of the house, thinking it too dangerous in the front. People were running down the street and looting stores and policemen were shooting. On the second night of the riots, there were military guards right off the Interstate 110 freeway. These white male guards pointed guns in her face and searched her car. Down on Imperial Highway, cars were ablaze, and people were screaming.

After the riots were over, Regina’s mental health suffered. She obsessed over her children’s safety and was often paralyzed by the stress. She would dream of answering phone calls at her job and talk in her sleep, ordering officers to return to the scene to find a missing limb.

When I asked her how she coped with it all, her eyes were unyielding and unblinking. I waited patiently for her to continue. Then she replied, “I didn’t think about it, and that’s a long story that I’m writing about to try and figure out now. I learned very early in life how to compartmentalize, so if something was uncomfortable or painful, I could put it in one section and go on—the point that stuff’s even coming up now that I’d forgotten. That’s part of the weight on the stomach, and I can feel the pain when it comes up, when I remember and write about it now. They’re all shut. All the horrors are shut.”

I later ask if micro­aggressions at the workplace increased after the riots, and she says, “Too numb to know, too numb to know, too numb.”

Her “compartments” stored memories well, for she continued in detail: “The hurt and the discouragement and the hopelessness, where we used to feel hope—even in slavery, it was like, if I can just get free. How do you ‘get free’ now? There’s no hope to get free. Where is the hope that you can pull yourself up? Like, I was 30 years old and I was driving down Pico heading to Bullock’s department store to take my daughter to what they call White Gloves and Party Manners class. And we’re driving down the street, and I look at the building that’s being built down there, and I don’t remember if that was the Transamerica Building or what—it’s short now by comparison. I started to cry ’cause it was the first time it had ever occurred to me that no matter how hard I worked, what I did, or what I accomplished, I could never own a building like one of those. That my ceiling was way down. No matter what I did—and I remember just sobbing and tried to pull myself together, and I was in a depression hole for a few weeks after that. I was 30 when it hit me. It’s kind of bizarre that I was … I really believed in the dream. I think they [the rioters] must have had the same realization about whatever they had set for their freedom.”

Here was a woman who inadvertently found herself in the meat grinder of American history. She was traumatized. You could almost hear the stress in her quiet home. There were things that she chose to forget, or that her body made her forget, in order to protect herself and stay alive. I recognized this pattern, but I was looking for a recovery from forgetfulness, a pilgrimage from the lands abandoned to the routes traversed. Then a question arose inside of me like a brief glimmer of light. If I knew the pattern, I had to ask this question and hope she would not be offended.

“When the riots were happening, did you ever feel the impulse to leave?” I asked.

“At some point I had a dream of living in the country and being peaceful and sitting on the front porch making circles in the dirt with my big toe, and then I realized that’s too much work.”

This exhaustion was of a level that I hadn’t confronted till this moment. Regina was well aware of all that her parents had done to get here. She remembered how much she toiled to make a better living for herself, only to find herself swept up in one of the biggest riots the country has ever seen. Even afterward, she realized that she would never get as far as she’s dreamed. But it was “too much work” to uproot and replant herself someplace else. There was too much baggage, too much history.

Geographically, California is the last place Black people could flee in this country before winding up in the Pacific Ocean. We’ve run on foot, boarded trains, driven cars and crossed rivers to be more free. In this day and age, we place our feet on pavements and march for the lives of those who’ve been slain by police officers. When we move, we resist in spite of the suppression.

Again, our country is confronted with its ills, and white people are confronted with their anxieties about Black people having full autonomy over our lives. This is our collective history. This is our collective baggage. And if we do not unpack it, if the powers that be crush our necks, bind our hands and ankles, or do anything else to keep us from moving, an uprising will happen again. Fires will burn—and the baggage will be waiting for us once more.


Adapted from Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins, available Aug. 4 from Harper/HarperCollins

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