Lloyd Newman: Teenage Chronicler of Ghetto Life Who Won a Peabody Award

From a New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “Lloyd Newman, Teenage Chronicler of ‘Ghetto Life,’ Dies at 43”:

Lloyd Newman, who teamed up with a fellow teenager in the 1990s to record two award-winning radio documentaries that bared the pernicious underside of growing up in a Chicago public housing project, died in Elmhurst, Ill.

Mr. Newman, the understated, harder-luck half of the duo, was 14 and in the eighth grade when he and his best friend, LeAlan Jones, 13, tape-recorded 100 hours of oral history and interviews to produce “Ghetto Life 101.” The producer David Isay transformed it into a 28-minute segment on National Public Radio in 1993.

In 1996, the youths won a Peabody Award, the youngest broadcasters at the time to do so, for “Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse,” a collage of recordings exploring the killing of a 5-year-old boy, tossed from the window of a vacant 14th-floor apartment in the Ida B. Wells Homes by a 10 and an 11 year old because he had refused to steal candy for them, according to the police.

The two young journalists “squeezed magic from the streets of their struggling South Side neighborhood,” the reporter Don Terry wrote in The New York Times in 1997.

The radio broadcasts were adapted into a book, “Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago” (1997), which they wrote with Mr. Isay.

Mr. Isay had produced both documentaries, and they inspired him to establish the StoryCorps oral history project. It began with a recording booth in Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan in 2003 and since then has interviewed a half-million people, an effort to encourage mutual understanding by asking “to hear someone’s truth,” as the project puts it.

Even when he was only 14, Lloyd Newman seemed unlikely to outlive his friend. “It’s easy to do wrong around here,” he told The Times in 1996. “It’s easy to get caught up by mistake.”

Mr. Jones had been raised by middle-class grandparents in a private home a block away from the housing project. He graduated from high school on schedule, earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from Barat College in Lake Forest, Ill., ran for Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat as the Green Party candidate in 2010 (he polled 3.2 percent) and became a mentor and professional journalist. Yet he seemed more pessimistic of the two.

“Unfortunately, Lloyd and I both knew we had accomplished very little with the challenges introduced in the documentaries,” Mr. Jones said in an email this week, citing, among other metrics, the rising toll of Black teenagers killed in Chicago.

Mr. Newman’s trajectory was more problematic, but he seemed more spirited.

He was “whip smart, street smart, with a huge heart and a shy smile,” Mr. Isay said on NPR last week, but “he lived through more in his first dozen years than most people live in a lifetime.”

Lloyd Sentel Newman was born on March 3, 1979, to Michael Murry, an alcoholic who, by the time his son was a teenager, hadn’t lived with the family for a decade, though he kept in touch with them and lived nearby. His mother, Lynn Newman, also drank heavily and died of cirrhosis when she was 35 and Lloyd was 15.

Lloyd was raised in a rowhouse, part of the Ida B. Wells Homes, by a sister who was six years older. She and another sister also died of complications of sickle cell anemia.

Lloyd, who sold laundry bags with his father and peddled newspapers, struggled at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago. But he was able to transfer to Future Commons Technical Prep High School (now closed), where he received closer supervision in smaller classes.

“It isn’t hopeless,” he told The Times in 1997. “I’ll go to summer school and regular school and night school — I’ll never drop out.”

He didn’t. After six years, he finally received his diploma and enrolled at Langston University in Oklahoma, though he never graduated.

He returned to Chicago, where in 2006 he was arrested outside his sister’s apartment and charged with the manufacture, delivery and possession of crack cocaine.

He pleaded guilty on his lawyer’s advice and was sentenced to two years’ probation. In 2021, his conviction was vacated thanks to another lawyer, Joshua Tepler, after it was determined that the evidence used to convict Mr. Newman had been faked by corrupt police officers who were implicated in more than 100 other phony arrests.

In interviews, Mr. Newman said he dreamed of going to college, opening a hardware store or becoming a journalist. After moving to DeKalb, Ill., west of Chicago, to be closer to his brother, he worked as a cabby and as an Uber driver.

In 2018, he was hired as a part-time shelver by the DeKalb County Library System and was later promoted to a $16-an-hour position mostly handling book loans to and from other libraries.

Before he lapsed into a coma seven months ago, he and a partner were planning to open a tobacco and CBD retail store.

“Ghetto 101” originated when Mr. Isay was hired at WBEZ radio, NPR’s Chicago affiliate, to contribute to a series of broadcasts inspired by Alex Kotlowitz’s book “There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America” (1991).

Michael Newman said that Lloyd had responded to a leaflet distributed by Mr. Isay seeking boots-on-the-ground reporters. Lloyd, he said, “thought that it would be fun and something different to do.”

Mr. Kotlowitz said in an email that the project had imbued Mr. Newman with a quiet confidence and gave him a job that fit his character, as an “understated yet fiercely powerful storyteller who so relished making individual connections often with people whose lives so differed from his own.”

“He was such a generous spirit and such a thoughtful soul,” Mr. Kotlowitz added. “I don’t know if he fully grasped the impact his storytelling had on others, but it inspired so many and challenged them in ways that brought us all closer.”

Both youths understood the challenges they faced in the other America, the one outside the ghetto.

“If we go in the store, we’re looked at wrong, as if we was going to steal,” Mr. Newman told Charlie Rose on PBS in 1997. “We’re not trusted, and most people feel that way.”

By his own reckoning, Lloyd Newman might not have expected to die of natural causes. In 1997, enumerating the most common causes of death in the projects, he told The Times: “People get thrown out of windows, drowned, stabbed, shot. But a lot of that killing would stop if the government would make it livable around here. We don’t have no parks. The swings are broken. There’s nothing for people to do. There’s no fun. Life isn’t worth living without some fun.”

In the documentary “Remorse,” Mr. Newman and Mr. Jones stood on the roof of the public housing building from which 5-year-old Eric Morse had been dropped from a 14th-floor window by two other young kids, or “shorties,” in the parlance of the streets. Looking over the edge, Mr. Jones asked Mr. Newman what would have gone through his mind if it was he who had been plunging to the ground.

“I’d be thinking about how I’m going to land and if I’m going to survive,” Mr. Newman said. “I’d be thinking about how it is in heaven.”

They mulled how long the fall would take and whether there would be time enough to say a prayer. Regardless, they concluded, Eric was so young that he would surely have gone to heaven.

“Dude, you think they got a playground in heaven for shorties?” Mr. Jones asked.

“Nope,” Mr. Newman said. “They don’t got a playground in heaven for nobody.”

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV.

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