Every school day, Antonio Florence and his best friend Herman Robinson Jr., both honor students, rode the W4 bus 40 minutes each way between their homes near Stanton Road in the city's blighted southern tip and H. D. Woodson High School in far Northeast. Ballou High would have been much closer, but they were attending a college-oriented humanities program at Woodson that they had decided was worth the ride.
As the bus labored up and down the eastern edge of the city, Robinson recalls, the young men often would joke uncomfortably about the life prospects--and the life expectancies--of the children from the neighborhood of tough housing projects where they both grew up in Southeast.
"We realized a lot of the kids we started grade school together with were in jail or dead," Robinson said recently. "We figured we were kind of lucky. Like, if you reached the age of 18 or 19, you're lucky. And if you're doing well, you were really rare."
On Christmas night, Antonio Jerome Florence was murdered on the streets he was trying to escape. He had been waiting for the bus, near his home in the grimy, brick-faced Stanton Dwellings housing project--he was on his way to a girlfriend's house and could not drive because he didn't yet have tags for a car he'd just gotten. Police said someone shot him twice in the back. Antonio Florence was one of the 226 persons in the Washington area killed by guns last year.
"It's like the neighborhood claimed another victim," said Robinson.
Florence, his friends, his mother and some of his teachers had all talked about his getting out of the neighborhood and achieving something better. In some ways, they said, he had already succeeded and his future appeared bright. He was especially proud of the three times that he and Robinson had represented Woodson High on the television quiz program "It's Academic," a distinction that seemed to hold such promise.
But still he died young, just off Stanton Road, on the sidewalk of 15th Place near where he used to catch the bus to Woodson.
Neighbors and family believe he was murdered because he had intervened in and broken up several fights among young toughs at the Stanton project. Last October, Florence suffered a broken jaw trying to break up a fight at a neighborhood soccer game, friends said.
D.C. homicide detectives said Thursday that a murder warrant has been issued in the case, but they said they would provide no details until an arrest is made.
Florence, according to his family, friends, and teachers, was one of the brightest students in Woodson's class of 1981--and a young man of energy and charm. A handsome, muscular youth, his passions included jogging near Suitland Parkway, playing football and baseball at Douglass Recreation Center, writing poetry, listening to the Beatles, reading whatever he could find at the Hillcrest library, counseling several neighborhood kids as a Big Brother and seeing several girlfriends who ranged in age from 17 to 27, according to his mother. "He had more girlfriends than the 'Fonz,' that boy," said his mother, Lavern Florence, managing a broad smile.
As his humanities teacher Rick Usilton described him in a letter this week to his family, Antonio Florence was "a young man of great promise and potential."
For years Florence had talked of becoming a lawyer, but decided to take a break before going to college. After graduating from Woodson last June, he worked as a summer intern at the D.C. Superior Court probation office. There he was so "very, very competent" that his paperwork job expanded into interviewing people on probation, said Carol Rivera, a probation officer who worked with him.
Recently, he had been unemployed but was awaiting word on what he considered a promising job opening at the State Department.
Lavern Florence was making funeral preparations as she sat in the family's $43-a-month subsidized apartment at 1370 Robinson St. SE, near St. Elizabeths Hospital. She was talking about the first-born of her four children, the one she called "my brightest jewel."
Mrs. Florence, 34, recalls the birth of her son more than 18 years ago with almost photographic detail, even though she was only 15 then. It was March 26, 1963, at the old Freedmen's Hospital--7:55 a.m. on a Tuesday, she said. He weighed seven pounds and 11 1/4 ounces, and was 19 inches long. "They didn't even have to slap that baby," she said. "He came out fighting."
As she spoke of the son she called "Tonie", the sunlight streamed in through a tattered brown window shade that is repaired with tape. A bug climbed the scarred green wall behind her. Above her hung a painting of Jesus, on paper that had wrinkled. The front door blew open as she talked, and she had to raise her voice to be heard above the noise of a hot-water faucet that runs constantly. She said the maintenance staff of the housing project has failed to repair the running faucet for seven months.
Tonie had always been a bright child, talking at an early age and repeating whatever he heard--to the point that it sometimes got annoying, his mother said. He loved books and words, she said, and he often demanded that someone in the family read to him. She recalled that when Tonie was 9, instead of asking for toys, he demanded a dictionary.
The household included Tonie's brother DeJohn, now 16, and sisters Tammie, 17, and Rosandra, 14. The two girls now live in Indiana with their grandmother, Mrs. Florence said. Lavern Florence herself grew up in Indiana, where she was in special education classes and never got past 10th grade. She has been receiving welfare for 12 years, she said.
"I always told my children I wanted them to have what I didn't have," she said. "I stayed on their behinds" to work hard in school and lead clean lives.
At Turner Elementary, and then at Johnson Junior High, both near his home, Tonie excelled in school and was always motivated by one extracurricular project or another. "In third grade, we were both safety patrols and that was our whole life," recalled his friend Herman Robinson. "In junior high, we worked in the guidance office and we were like clerks, filing and helping out . . . . We were dedicated to that. And then in senior high, it was 'It's Academic.' "
Both youngsters made it to Woodson on the recommendation of a Johnson guidance counselor who said she "hated to see them go to Ballou . . . and wanted to get them away from their neighborhood," according to Woodson guidance chief Saxon Graham. Tonie and Herman (who went on to achieve a 3.99 grade-point average and become Woodson's salutatorian) both passed a test for admission to Woodson's special humanities program, Graham said.
"It's Academic" was Tonie's biggest thrill at Woodson, Robinson said. Although the boys appeared on television only once a year, they were involved in quarterly regional competitions, frequent matches within Woodson, and daily practices, almost like an athletic team, Robinson said. The boys caught the early bus from Southeast, often while it was still dark, to attend before school 8 a.m. practices, he said.
"Antonio and I were the best in the school" at the rapid-fire, multi-subject quiz game, Robinson said. "We were good and we knew it. We practiced and we worked hard at it."
After graduation, Robinson said both he and Tonie decided not to attend college immediately. For himself, Robinson said, the decision was based on a desire to pursue a career writing fiction and poetry. Robinson is attending a computer training program in Springfield, and plans to earn money in that field while writing.
Possibly influenced by Robinson's choice, Tonie Florence, who had an average of better than 3.0, also decided to put off college. Robinson said his friend was tired of school and wanted a taste of work before college.
However, Florence was among 110 students from the District who were lured last October by the promise of a free education at Friendship College in Rock Hill, S.C. But he left there after a week, along with scores of others who described a near-total lack of facilities at the now-closed school.
After that episode, his mother said, Tonie was ready to go back to work. He took a U.S. Civil Service examination and went for several job interviews in recent weeks, his mother said.
When the 7th District police interviewed the family about Tonie's death, their first question was whether the killing might have been drug-related, Mrs. Florence said. She said she was insulted by the question; and Florence's friends, family and teachers agree that he would be the least likely candidate for drug use. "You can knock on any door here" in the housing project, said Annie Butler, the president of the local tenants' council, "and they will tell you what a fine, intelligent young man he was." Police sources said there was no indication that drugs were behind Florence's death.
On Tuesday, the State Department called the Florence home to offer Tonie an entry-level job. It was only clerical work for about $9,000 a year, but in applying for the job Tonie had seen it as a possible opening for a career opportunity, Robinson said.
Mrs. Florence recalled that she had to raise her voice a bit on the telephone so that the State Department caller could hear, over the sound of the running faucet, when she told him her son was dead.