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A young man's murder and the life of the inner city

Column by Thomas T. Huang

GREENSBORO, NC -- High school teachers remember Nathaniel Williams as a quiet, easy-going student athlete who went by the nickname "Toon," a name he had carried since childhood.

He had a learning disability, yet he came to class every day and tried hard to complete his homework.

But after he graduated in 1986, his good-natured ways changed. He started hanging out with the wrong crowd, a crowd that used and sold cocaine, said Marvin Cowan, a student who was Williams' friend.

Williams, 22, died March 30 on a flight of wooden steps in an apartment building at the Smith Homes public housing complex in Greensboro.

He was gunned down as he ran into a vestibule of an apartment building on Hudgins Drive that night. He was shot once in the left side of his back. He died two hours later in an operating room.

A man named Norman Lorenzo Barnes Jr., 26, was charged the next day with first-degree murder. Police still don't know the motive, although neighbors said Barnes was involved in drug-dealing.

An elderly woman who spoke from behind a locked screen door said that young men line the streets of the Smith Homes every day from 5 pm to midnight to hustle drugs.

"I don't know what happened, but I know the neighborhood I live in, and it's a scary situation," said Williams' 36-year-old sister, Joyce. "When I was growing up, crack wasn't there. Now it's all hard-core.

"Why don't you print that there are people from other neighborhoods who come here to buy drugs?" she asked. "Why don't you print that there are people here who feed drugs to our children? How many have to die before something is done?"

The drug trade, and the violence that surrounds it, does not confine itself to Washington, New York, Los Angeles or Boston. Drug-related violence is becoming more and more common in the smaller cities of this country. Drug-dealers are finding new markets.

The cities lack both government and private funding to combat drugs.

Many American cities claim to be undergoing a "Renaissance." But in most cases what they really mean is that their downtowns are being renewed so that the middle- and upper-class can move back in. The inner cities remain ignored.

There are no simple solutions to the drug problem in the United States.

But federal and state governments would be taking a step in the right direction by ensuring that the inner cities get their share of urban development grants that normally go to downtown shopping malls, office buildings and condominiums.

Private development contracts could be awarded on the condition that some of the money be used to improve drug education for young children and to strengthen local drug enforcement.

All of this, of course, is academic to a sister who couldn't believe her 22-year-old brother was dead.

"Toon was complex, quiet and sometimes into himself," said his sister, Joyce. "I'm hoping he wasn't involved in drugs."

Williams, one of five children in his family, lived with his mother and sister at another public housing complex nearby. He worked for a moving company until he quit a few months ago, Cowan said.

Williams ran for the Smith High varsity track team in 1984, and he was second-string fullback for the varsity football team in 1984 and 1985, said Mike Porter, football and basketball coach.

"He had drive," Porter said. "He was not a starter, but he played a lot. He worked hard."

"He was a good kid," said Kathy Sloan, who teaches students with learning disabilities. "He had a good sense of humor."

The morning after Nathaniel Williams was murdered, Hudgins Drive was quiet and wet with rain. There were blood stains on the wooden stairway where Williams was shot. A 15-year-old girl answered the door to one of the apartments on the second floor.

"He was a good person before he got mixed up with the wrong crowd -- drug dealers," said the girl, who would only identify herself as Tracy.

Joyce Williams sat in the living room of a neighbor's apartment. She had just taken a Valium and would only talk to a visitor for a few minutes.

She said, "At 11:40, when the doctor told me my brother had died, a piece of me died."

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Thomas T. Huang '86, a reporter for The Greensboro (NC) News and Record, is a former editor in chief of The Tech.