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40 Rare Photos Of The Watts Riots Uncovered By City Intern

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Damaged storefronts in the 1965 Watts riots included this former campaign office of mayoral candidate James Roosevelt. (Photo courtesy of City of Los Angeles archives)
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Never-before-seen photos of the Watts riots offer a startling look back at the civil unrest that occurred 50 years ago this week.

The rare photos, taken by the Los Angeles Fire Department of the 1965 Watts riots, were unearthed last year when an intern stumbled upon three unmarked boxes full of negatives. (Yay, interns!) The boxes had been misplaced after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, part of a forgotten collection that at one point included as many as 17 to 18 boxes from the fire department, according to the L.A. Daily News. The others sadly seem to be lost to time. From the three remaining boxes—which included 200 negatives—L.A city archivist Michael Holland selected and restored 40 of the photos for the 50th anniversary of the Watts rebellion.

The photos, most of which have never been seen by the public, show firefighters battling blazes, some firefighters receiving medical attention, as well as residents surveying the aftermath of destruction. There are also aeriel photos of some of the fires and images of the LAPD and National Guard on the streets of Watts. The photos were taken as part of the LAFD's in-house publication “The Grapevine” from 1940 to 1965, which included images of training, accident scenes and fires.

While there are many other photos documenting the devastation that occurred in Watts between August 11 and 17 in 1965, Holland realized that uncovered photos offered a unique perspective given that the fire department had access to areas blocked off by the National Guard. “I know some of the press and some of the media and reporters couldn’t quite get to where they wanted to. The fire department was allowed in," he explains. "They had access that almost nobody else had.”

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The Watts Rebellion erupted after the DUI arrest of a Marquette Frye, 21-year-old black man, who was pulled over by a white CHP officer in Watts on August 11. When Frye's mother came to the scene to yell at her son for drinking, a crowd formed and then tensions mounted. Authorities said Frye resisted arrest, and things got hostile between civilians and officers. There were already high racial tensions at the time, and it led to six days of rioting. Buildings were damaged and looted, and the results of the rioting were devastating: 34 people died and more than 1,000 were injured.

Holland has now edited together the photos with music and posted the collection to YouTube: