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Biden recalls 1960s job as Wilmington lifeguard

The pool facility in the Brown Burton Winchester Park was re-named the Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Aquatic Center Monday.

Kids part of the Ark Learning Center’s summer camp got some extra pool time Monday morning, sticking around to meet Vice President Biden.


Biden worked at the pool - then known as Prices Run Park pool - as a college student in the era of civil rights riots taking place across the country, and in Wilmington.


“I wanted to get more involved," Biden said. "And I realized that I lived in a neighborhood where I’d turn on the television and I’d see and listen to Dr. King and others, but I didn’t know any black people."


He became the pool’s only white lifeguard, and worked to break down social and cultural barriers. Biden said he learned a lot about Wilmington’s African American community from fellow lifeguards during his time there.


“We’d sit there and we’d talk and they’d ask me questions because I really was the only white guy they really knew," Biden said.

One time, another lifeguard asked him for a full gasoline can so he could make the trip to his grandmother’s home in North Carolina without needing to stop at unfriendly segregated gas stations.

Longtime friend and former NAACP president Richard “Mouse” Smith became friends with Biden while spending time with him at the pool. 

“We showed Joe that we could accept white people," Smith said. 

U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester and others said Biden’s time at the pool symbolizes his dedication to civil rights.

“He wasn’t afraid to be the only white lifeguard here, he wasn’t afraid to step outside of his comfort zone and get to know other people and about other cultures," Rochester said. "But he also wasn’t a person to step back, he never shied away.”


Many shared stories about Biden's time at the pool, and experience advocating for civil rights. Rochester referenced a story from Biden's book about his experience throwing local gang leader "Corn Pop" out of the pool complex, jokingly calling him Esther Williams. "Corn Pop" took offense to being called Esther Williams and was waiting for Biden with razor blades one day. Biden diffused the situation by apologizing.

Biden also mentioned his decision to leave a "fancy job at the oldest law firm in the state" to become a public defender in Wilmington.


"He took a stand," Smith said. "This guy should have been president of the United States. Joe understands black folks, poor folks, all folks."


And before leaving Monday, Biden briefly climbed back into a lifeguard perch to salute the new generation sitting in the chair that now bears his name.


"We like it here," Joyce Dixon said, summer camp supervisor for the Ark Learning Center. It's the group's second year at the pool, where they meet Monday and Thursday mornings during the summer. Open to kids ages 5-13, they're also still accepting kids this summer.


19-year-old Louis Hall has been working as a lifeguard at the pool for about four years, and enjoys working with the kids.

"It's a really a good feeling that I'm doing the same thing that he [Biden] did," Hall said.



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