LOS ANGELES — On a hot August evening nearly 48 years ago, Rena Price was at home in South Los Angeles when she was summoned with alarming news: A few blocks away, one of her sons, Marquette Frye, had been stopped by California Highway Patrol officers after driving erratically down Avalon Boulevard, near 116th Street. Price hurried to the scene.
Her son, according to the arresting officer, had failed a series of sobriety tests but had been good-humored and cooperative until she arrived. Accounts vary on what set off the ensuing scuffle, but a patrolman hit Frye on the head with a baton and his mother jumped on another officer, tearing his shirt.
With a growing crowd bearing unhappy witness, Price, Frye and his brother, Ronald, a passenger in the car, were handcuffed and taken to jail.
Their arrests on Aug. 11, 1965, ignited the Watts riots — six turbulent days that left 34 dead, thousands injured and millions of dollars in property damaged or destroyed.
“I didn’t know about any of the rioting until my daughter came and got me out of jail at 7 the next morning,” Price told the Los Angeles Times on the 40th anniversary of the riots in 2005. “I was surprised. I had never heard of a riot. There were never any riots before. I went back to my house. Where else was I going to go?”
Price, a reluctant figure in one of the grimmest chapters in the city’s history, died of natural causes June 10 in Los Angeles, according to a son, Wendell Price. She was 97.
Born in Oklahoma on May 13, 1916, Price had moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1956 and found work cleaning houses and baby sitting. The neighborhood children she looked after nicknamed her “the Lady.”
When Price reached the intersection of Avalon and 116th on the fateful night in 1965, she scolded Frye about drinking and driving, he recalled in a 1985 interview later published in the Orlando Sentinel. The situation quickly escalated: Someone shoved her, Frye was struck, she jumped an officer, another officer pulled out a shotgun.
After rumors spread that the police had roughed her up and kicked a pregnant woman, angry mobs formed, turning a 46-square-mile swath of the city into a combat zone.
After the Fryes’ names appeared in news accounts about the riot’s inception, most of the family began using the last name of Price, which belonged to the father of one of her children. “When people heard the name Frye, all kinds of red flags went up. We all got hassled,” son Wendell recalled in an interview last week.
The post-riot period was especially hard on Marquette, described in news accounts as “the man who started the riots.”
A folk hero to some and a pariah to others, he drifted from job to job, struggled with excessive drinking and was arrested dozens of times. After the death of an infant son with heart problems, he tried to kill himself. On Christmas Eve 1986, he died of pneumonia at age 41.
Price also struggled. Found guilty of interfering with police officers, a misdemeanor, she was fined $250 and given a 30-day jail term, later reduced to two years’ probation. In 1966 an appellate panel reversed her conviction, citing prejudicial remarks the prosecution had made to the jury blaming Price and her sons for causing the deadly riots.
Still, she told the Times decades later, “nobody would hire me after the arrest. … We survived because my husband worked at a paper factory.”
Her husband, Wallace James Frye, died in the 1970s. Her survivors include sons Wendell and Charles and a number of grandchildren.
As time caused the sharp emotions of that period to fade, Price eventually was able to find work. In her free time she enjoyed visiting friends and family in Oklahoma and Wyoming and found luck was usually on her side when she patronized her favorite casinos in Las Vegas. “She was very blessed,” Wendell Price said, “despite everything.”
Price never reclaimed her 1955 Buick, the car her son had been driving the day the riots erupted. By the time she located it at an impound lot, the storage fees had exceeded its value.
She wasn’t one to dwell on the events of 1965, especially after they were eclipsed by the far more destructive 1992 riots.
“What was the name of that King guy? Rodney? You hear more about that than the ’65 riots,” she reflected in 2005. “Oh, it’s been years. I’m through with it.”