The summer of 1962 stretched out with possibility before 19-year-old Joe Biden, who was home from college in Wilmington, Del. Though it was the last of his teen years, he didn’t spend it carousing at the local bars, wandering the sands of Rehoboth Beach or driving to Atlantic City.
Instead, he took a job as a lifeguard at a city pool in hopes of learning more about the black community.
His plan was successful. Not only was he the only white lifeguard at the Prices Run swimming pool in Brown-Burton Winchester Park, but he was one of the only white people there at all, as he wrote in his autobiography “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.”
Now, 55 years later, the community has named the center housing the pool after the former vice president. The new sign on the side of the building reading the “Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center” was unveiled Monday.
Biden, surrounded by young black children in swimming trunks and one-pieces, reflected on his time at the pool before climbing up a ladder to sit in the lifeguard chair, suited arms outstretched.
“I owe you all,” Biden told the crowd, according to the Delaware News-Journal. “I owe this neighborhood. I learned so, so much.”
Most notably, he learned firsthand of the struggles faced by the black community when segregation was still the law of the land.
“Most of the people I got to know there had literally never talked to a white person,” he wrote in his book. Because of that, as he said Monday, “They’d ask me questions — because I really was the only white guy they really knew — about things that just startled me.”
He recalled, for example, a fellow lifeguard asking if Biden had a five-gallon can for gasoline that he could borrow for a trip to see his grandmother in North Carolina. Biden didn’t, and he asked why someone would need such a thing. After all, many gas stations line I-95.
“‘We can’t stop at most gas stations,'” the black lifeguard responded. “‘They won’t let us stop at most gas stations.’”
“I learned a lot,” Biden said.
“Every day, it seemed to be, black people got subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that they didn’t quite belong in America,” he wrote in his book, where he described that summer. “It was a dozen small cuts a day.” Even so, “The stories my friends at the pool told were always tinged more with confusion and pain than outright anger.”
He made many close friends there, starting with Bill Wright, an “old Navy salt” who would “show up to service the big machinery of the pool works.”
Wright, one of the few white people who visited the pool, helped Biden through his only altercation during those months — an experience that would also teach Biden how to peacefully resolve conflicts.
Early in the summer, a gang that called itself the Romans frequented the pool. One of the gang members, nicknamed Corn Pop, was bouncing relentlessly on the high diving board, which was expressly against the rules. Biden, wanting to show that he “wasn’t an easy mark” whistled at Corn Pop and yelled, “Esther Williams! Get off the board, man. You’re out of here.”
Williams was a 1950s swimmer and actress best known for aquatic set pieces, and the joke was likely meant to be somewhat emasculating.
The other lifeguards pointed out his mistake though, telling him that Corn Pop would likely be waiting for Biden to walk to his car at the end of the day. And Corn Pop would probably be carrying his weapon of choice, a straight razor.
Biden wanted to call the police, but Wright stopped him. If he did that, he’d never be allowed back in the community. So Biden did as his friend suggested and wrapped a six-foot length of metal chain around his arm, which he then wrapped in a towel.
Corn Pop indeed approached Biden, who said, “You might cut me, Corn Pop, but I’m going to wrap this chain around your head before you do.”
But he also said, loudly for all to hear, “I owe you an apology. I should never have called you Esther Williams. That was wrong. And in front of all your friends, I sincerely apologize. But if you bounce on the board like that again, I’m still going to throw you out.”
The two “put our weapons away, and we ended up being friends. Corn Pop and the Romans looked out for me the rest of the summer.”
And the rest of that summer was filled with pleasant things like basketball, dishing about exciting dates and lying around in the summer sun after long swims as a strong relationship was born. It was filled with two disparate communities learning more about each other, becoming slightly more unified.
“The neighborhood’s always had my back,” Biden said Monday. “And God willing, I’ve always had your back, and I’ll always have it as long as I’m around.”
Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) also spoke at Monday’s ceremony.
“Naming this facility after our former vice president is a message to these young people and young people across the state and city about what Joe stood for and continues to stand for,” Carney said. “I can’t think of a better way to honor our Joe.”
Added Carney, “I’m sure there are going to be other things we name after Joe … but I’ll bet you there won’t be anything more important to him and the young people of our state … than to know Joe’s commitment to civil rights started right here.”
More from Morning Mix: