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.
Over the years, I met Biden a couple of times, and the thing I remember most is how normal he is. He's really just an average dude, an everyman who works hard and pulls no punches. He's the guy John Edwards pretended to be, and Delaware is fiercely loyal to him—if not slightly protective.
Bring up Biden's penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth, like the time he called Barack Obama "articulate" and "clean," and Delawareans will tell you "that's just Joe being Joe." He's almost always forgiven for his flubs, because, as Brumskill put it, his supporters back home know that "Joe is an honorable man who believes in justice for everyone, beginning with black people."
Since he was first elected to the Senate almost 40 years ago, Biden has won every race thereafter. In fact, I can't recall any other candidate posing a serious threat. Biden has had Delaware on lock, but he earned his way to the top, thanks to a Clintonesque ability to navigate the political landscape.
With less than 1 million people, Delaware is a tiny, often-overlooked state bordered by Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. It sits just above the Mason Dixon Line and is equal parts rural and progressive. In the lower part of the state, there are rumored to be more chickens than people. As you head south, old farmsteads dot verdant pastures, but then about an hour and a half in, those country roads open up to a string of beaches—most notably the popular and gay-friendly Rehoboth—where million-dollar real estate is the norm.
Much of the black and Latino community, however, reside up north in Wilmington, which is located about 25 miles outside of Philadelphia. It's Delaware's largest city, where blacks make up about 56 percent of the population and account for 1 in 6 voters.
Despite being such a small state (the second smallest in the Union), Delaware's geographic, political and ethnic makeup are diverse, facts that Biden worked to his advantage when he launched his political career in 1969 as a member of the county council. He campaigned in the heavily Democratic areas in Wilmington, as well as the Republican strongholds beyond the city. And when he ran for Senate a few years later, he employed a similar strategy, traveling statewide to tell voters that the parent downstate worried about good schools and crime just as much as the factory worker on Wilmington's predominantly black East Side neighborhood. Biden's message resonated with voters, and in 1972, he defeated the incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs, who had, at one point, served in the House, the Senate and as Delaware's governor.
"Boggs never campaigned in the black community," says Alan Lawrence, a longtime Wilmington resident and retired manager at Delmarva, the state's utility company. "Biden was considered a long shot at the time. He launched a grassroots campaign in the black community that worked, because a lot of people remembered him from his days as a lifeguard. The black vote was key to getting him elected, and he always says that."
In the early '80s, he pushed for more minorities to enroll in service academies such as West Point. A decade later, he nominated Gregory Sleet to serve as Delaware's first black U.S. attorney and then as the state's first black federal judge. He also helped local politicians like former City Councilman-at-Large Theo Gregory get elected.
"He walked the East Side with me," says Gregory. "He knocked on doors and told people to come out and be supportive. Joe always gave respect and acknowledgement to the black community, which is part of his foundation, by pushing for minimum-wage laws and by supporting health care reforms spearheaded by Ted Kennedy. "
It wouldn't be a stretch for Biden to claim to have been at the forefront of social policies favorable to African Americans since his days as a freshman lawmaker, with one major exception: the war on drugs. Biden headed up the creation of a "drug czar" under the first President Bush and backed policy that led to shameful 100-to-1 sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, which resulted in racially biased prosecutions and longer prison time for black offenders.
In early 2008, though, long after the country realized what an utter failure the initiative had been, Biden tried to make amends by supporting legislation to overturn those policies. "Our intentions were good," he told a Senate subcommittee, "but much of our information was bad." Like he'd done at Prices pool so many years before, Biden was willing to admit he'd been wrong, and it helped him rebound from another messy situation. This time, however, the payoff was huge, clearing the way for him to join a history-making ticket.
If Biden's storied career and populist appeal sound like a throwback to the Kennedy era, that's hardly a coincidence, says Gregory. Biden was ushered into politics with the Kennedys and "represented a new way of thinking that involved aggressively reaching out to the African-American community and recognizing our need for representation."
Ultimately, that's the reason he's remained so popular among black folks in little ol' Delaware and why being down with Team Obama was simply a matter of returning to his roots.
Chana Garcia is a New York-based journalist and blogger who is proud to be a square from Delaware.
Chana Garcia is a journalist, blogger, and cancer survivor who lives in New York City.