It was an unlikely meeting in an unlikely place, made possible by the most improbable of circumstances: Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer, shaking hands with the former leaders of two rival Prince George's County gangs at the Embassy of Austria in Northwest Washington.
But there they were, Ali meeting the two men last night in a private room with a playful shadowbox and then an embrace. Dominic Taylor, 24, and Henry "Hank" Johnson, 33, who had given up the street thug life only five months before, could hardly believe their eyes.
Henry Johnson, left, and Dominic Taylor received an award from Search for Common Ground, a conflict resolution group.
(Photos Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Po St)
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"It's really him," someone in the room said. "It's the champ."
There were smiles and hugs -- and, briefly, pandemonium as the two dozen or so people in the room, many of them former gang members, vied to shake hands and take a picture with Ali.
But everyone knew that the night was about Taylor, Johnson and Ali. The three would soon go into the atrium of the embassy, stand before hundreds of attendees and receive an award from an organization that honors conflict resolution.
"The harder the trials and tribulations, the greater the blessing," Johnson said.
Five months ago, Taylor and Johnson did something that many in Prince George's County said was extraordinary: They stood before a church congregation in Fort Washington and promised that the gang violence that for years had plagued the community was over.
Members of Ebenezer AME Church, 3,000 strong that day, were overjoyed at the truce declared by Taylor, leader of the Shadow High gang in Fort Washington, and Johnson, head of the Birchwood City gang in Oxon Hill.
Now, keeping their word and even forming what they call a "family bond" among the once-rival gangs, Johnson and Taylor received the Community Peace-Building Award from Washington-based Search for Common Ground.
They joined the ranks of such past Common Ground award winners as former president Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, journalist Ted Koppel and James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state.
At last night's ceremony, Taylor and Johnson joined others recognized for their peace initiatives in the eighth annual presentation of the prizes: Ali, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros and former representative Jack Kemp.
"It takes a huge amount of courage to make peace, and we want to honor that kind of behavior and encourage others to try it also," said John Marks, president of Search for Common Ground, who founded the group in 1982. Taylor and Johnson "showed it was possible to overcome long-standing differences, which they had been using violence to deal with," he said.
Ali received the Common Ground Lifetime Achievement Award for "bringing the world together and moving beyond polarization," Marks said.
Cisneros and Kemp were honored for bipartisan cooperation for "putting aside fractious partisanship and publishing a series of recommendations that reflect their shared vision for a new national housing policy, which is extremely rare in Washington," Marks said.
But for many, Taylor and Johnson were the highlights of the evening.
"It's like a father seeing his sons graduate," said Tyrone Parker, executive director of the Alliance of Concerned Men, a grass-roots organization that brokered the truce between the two gangs. "It's a celebration."
"It's really exciting," said Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, who was at the ceremony. "Everyone hears the drumbeat of the murders in this county, and this is a powerful counterpoint to that."
As for Johnson and Taylor, the past five months have not been easy, they say; not all of the members of their gangs have agreed with their newly peaceful ways. But both say their decision to declare a truce to end two decades of street violence was the right one.
"We love each other now," Johnson said. "You can feel that this is real. It's a good feeling and a good cause, one I'm willing to die for."
Taylor agreed. "It's a blessing when you can turn around something so negative and turn it into something so positive," he said. "We're like family now."