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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Working as deputy Detroit bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, Angelo B. Henderson was honored with the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished feature writing. His dramatic narrative detailed the lives affected by an attempted drugstore robbery that ended in the robber’ s death.
The Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award given for journalistic excellence, is presented annually by Columbia University in New York City. He is the 22nd African American to win this award since its inception in 1917. He joins the ranks of literary giants Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and the late Gwendolyn Brooks.
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Transcript of the Wall Street Journal’s recommendation of Mr. Henderson for the Pulitzer Prize
Paul E. Steiger Managing Editor
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL,
The Wall Street Journal
200 Liberty Street
New York, NY 10281
January 25, 1999
The Pulitzer Prize Board 709
2950 Broadway, Mail Code 3865 Columbia University
New York, NY 10027
To the Judges:
The constant drumbeat of violent urban crime, with its shocking, fleeting headlines, tends to numb us as much as it appalls us. So now and then it is useful, we think, to take a keen look behind the headlines, statistics and stereotypes to put a more human face on crime, and all its consequences.
" Crime Scene, " by Wall Street Journal reporter Angelo B. Henderson, does exactly that. And the result is one of the most dramatic articles the Journal has ever published. It provides a harrowing, yet empathetic, look at an attempted drugstore stickup that ended in death— the kind of crime that usually fades from public consciousness after a brief blur of publicity. This time, though, Mr. Henderson, using grit, persuasion and unshakable determination, decided to explore in full what was no more than a brief in a Detroit newspaper early in 1997. The result, published January 20, 1998, on page one, is 3,500 words of sharp prose and startling scenes. They provide a rare window into an event whose reverberations are usually played out privately in the bruised and battered psyches of the participants and survivors.
The compelling way Mr. Henderson writes this narrative speaks for itself. Less obvious are the challenges he faced in getting the story.
|Angelo Henderson is congratulated by friends and colleagues upon winning the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing|
The first roadblock was persuading Douglas Grehl, the twice-robbed druggist in the article, to tell his story on the record. After all, there was no compelling reason for Mr. Grehl to tell his story at all, and many reasons not to— including the not-unrealistic fear of retribution. When Mr. Henderson phoned him at his drugstore the after the robbery in January, Mr. Grehl declined to discuss the case, but he didn't flatly rule out a conversation later on. Mr. Henderson checked back a month later, but Mr. Grehl said he was just beginning psychiatric counseling, so perhaps Mr. Henderson could check again in another month or two, though he could make no promises then. Mr. Henderson did check back every month, either calling Mr. Grehl or stopping by at his drugstore.
Mr. Grehl finally consented to discuss the shooting and its impact on his life, and a series of interviews followed in August and September 1997. Mr. Henderson's efforts were potentially complicated by the reality that he is black, and Mr. Grehl is a white man who had shot a black man to death, albeit in self-defense. Justly or not, Mr. Grehl could have been suspicious of Mr. Henderson's journalistic motives. Instead, Mr. Grehl was won over, slowly, by Mr. Henderson's patience, professionalism and sincerity.
Getting Mr. Grehl and his drugstore colleagues
to go on the record proved to be the easy part. The background
Williams, the man Mr. Grehl shot dead, was a virtual
cipher, even to
police. All Mr. Henderson had to go on originally
was the name and a rap sheet from police indicating some
dealing— hardly much to go on in crime-plagued
Detroit. Again, using patience and persistence, Mr. Henderson
Mr. Williams's death certificate from a police source.
In itself, it shed no real new
on the dead man, except a last-known Detroit address, the name address of his mother, Erma Williams, who lived in Chicago, and the Chicago funeral home that buried him. The Detroit address turned out to be a dead-end: a crack house in a crime-ridden part of town where no one could seem to remember a man named Tony Williams.
Unable to find a phone number for Erma Williams, and phone calls to the funeral home being unavailing, Mr. Henderson sent a succession of letters to the address, asking for an interview. But the letters went unanswered. So Mr. Henderson got on a plane to Chicago, rented a car and drove to the funeral home. Employees there were reluctant at first, but they provided the name and location of the cemetery where Mr. Williams had been buried, and most important, the real address of Mr. Williams's mother. (The address on the death certificate was wrong, it turned out.) Mr. Henderson drove out to the cemetery, and then, using a city map, cold-called on Erma Williams's apartment in a run-down section of Chicago's West Side.
Mr. Williams's step-father was at home, and he said Mrs. Williams would be home maybe two or three hours later. Mr. Henderson explained his mission and asked if he could wait for her. The man was reluctant at first, but assented. Almost three hours later, Erma Williams appeared and, after some strained early minutes, agreed to discuss the matter with Mr. Henderson. Two hours later, the reporter was still there— when Aaron Williams, a younger brother of Tony's, walked in. He had recently been released from prison. The interchange between Aaron and Erma Williams— in which Aaron for the first time relates Tony's long history of crime and drugs to his mother— is one of the astonishing moments of Mr. Henderson's story.
I believe Mr. Henderson's reporting and relating of this story are in the highest traditions of American journalism, and I proudly submit " Crime Scene: Beyond the Statistics, a Druggist Confronts the Reality of Robbery" for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.