Joe Biden’s Black Pass

Why the vice president is "a big f***ing" deal in Delaware, especially among African Americans.

Biden and Joe Brumskill, a former Wilmington school board president.
Biden and Joe Brumskill, a former Wilmington school board president.

Shortly after he ousted a guy named Corn Pop for breaking the rules at the all-black pool, Joe Biden considered calling the police to escort him to his car once his shift ended.

Corn Pop belonged to a gang known as the Romans, and Biden, the lone white lifeguard at Prices Run–one of the few public pools in Wilmington, Del., open to non-whites during the 1960s–made fun of the man’s pomade-slathered hair before kicking him out.

Word from the black lifeguards was that Corn Pop, who took his coiffure pretty seriously, would be waiting outside with a straight razor, ready to fight. Calling the cops was a no-no, Biden was warned, unless he planned to never return to the pool.

Biden, then a 19-year-old college student, didn’t take long to deliberate. He made his way to one of the back rooms and emerged with a 6-foot-long piece of chain wrapped around his arm. He knew what he had to do.

Luckily, a little public posturing was enough to satisfy Corn Pop, and the two men made peace; Biden even apologized for the insult.

It was possibly the first in a long line of verbal slip-ups that would land the vice president in hot water, but to let Wilmington’s black residents tell it, that day at the pool was fateful. It was there that Delaware’s star politician earned the respect of the African-American community, which would see him through many elections.

“That’s where it all started,” says Joe Brumskill, a former Wilmington school board president who worked on several of Biden’s U.S. Senate campaigns. “He grew up working with black people, and we got to know him well.”

I was born in Delaware, and as a kid, I remember Biden’s name being dropped casually in conversations as if he were an extended member of the family. It still is.

For starters, nearly everyone calls him by his first name. My dad, a retired federal parole officer, and his friends, many of whom hung out at the city pool back in the day, regularly rattle off stories about “Joe.” They’d likely seen him at a community event when he was still a senator. Several of them attended fundraisers at his house or called his office to air grievances. But the Corn Pop run-in, which the vice president also recounts in his autobiography, Promises to Keep, is the one story they keep in heavy rotation.

It’s easy to understand then that few of them were surprised when the nation’s first black president chose Biden as his second in command. Or, perhaps more accurately, that Biden solicited the job. African Americans in the First State know this is familiar territory for the vice president.