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There really was a ‘Corn Pop’ — but critics cast doubt on Joe Biden’s oft-told story

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/16/2019 Robert Samuels

a house that has a sign on the side of a building: Joe Biden was 19 when he was employed as a lifeguard at this swimming pool that is now named after him. © André Chung for The Washington Post/for The Washington Post Joe Biden was 19 when he was employed as a lifeguard at this swimming pool that is now named after him. Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden has a reputation for stories that are rich in the theater but loose with details. He’s had to apologize for using other politicians’ florid prose without attribution, overstating his involvement in the civil rights movement and, most recently, fusing three different true stories into one moving, false moment with a soldier in Afghanistan.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Biden faced scrutiny Sunday after a writer for the Root resurfaced a 2017 video of Biden recounting an altercation that involved him — then a 19-year-old lifeguard working at a swimming pool in a black neighborhood in Delaware — and a gang leader who shared a nickname with a breakfast cereal.

Biden came to the confrontation with a chain; Corn Pop, a razor. To skeptics, the nicknames and the details seemed too cinematic, relying on stereotypes of African Americans. But there was an indeed a man named Corn Pop, and his back-and-forths with Biden have long been part of the folklore of Wilmington’s east side. 

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Frustrated by the viral criticism, Biden’s campaign asserted there was little reason beyond Twitter chatter to cast doubt on his story’s veracity.

“Every fact about this that has been independently corroborated — which is the overwhelming majority of them — backs up Joe Biden’s account, and others in Delaware have discussed this altercation on the record for years,” said Andrew Bates, campaign spokesman. “What’s more, his telling of it has been consistent and true.”

Here’s the story the former vice president tells: While working as a lifeguard at Prices Run swimming pool, he blew his whistle at Corn Pop, who was playing around on the diving boards. Biden tried emasculating him by calling him “Esther Williams,” a movie actress and swimming champion known for performing musical numbers in and around water.

Embarrassed, Corn Pop and his group, the Romans, threatened to jump Biden after closing time. The Romans, Biden says, were known to fight with razors. On the advice of a pool manager, Biden took a metal chain to the potential brawl. But instead of fighting, Biden says, the two reconciled.

“I owe you an apology,” Biden told Corn Pop, as he recalled in his 2007 autobiography, “Promises to Keep.” “I should have never 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.”

More than a dozen residents who grew up in Wilmington, including some who worked and swam at the pool, told The Washington Post this summer of a contentious relationship with Corn Pop that eventually moved into a friendship — even if they could not confirm this particular confrontation.

Reached by phone Monday, Corn Pop’s sister, Lorraine Bailey, said she was surprised that her brother was making the news.

“My brother is deceased, why is anyone speaking his name?” Bailey said. “But everyone called him Corn Pop. And I remember him talking about Joe Biden.”

Biden has often said that his time at the pool was foundational in his understanding of conflict resolution and helped shape his relationship with the black community in Delaware. He had little interaction with African Americans before then, he said, and wanted to do something to better understand their culture.

When Biden began working at Prices Run swimming pool in 1962, the neighborhood was in the midst of a demographic shift. Black families had been pushed out of their homes to make way for the building of an interstate, and they settled in housing projects at the bottom of a hill. They called the area the Bucket.

Many of the households had no air conditioning, so the pool became the center of youth activity. And soon, old lifeguards and residents recall, the pool was overrun by neighborhood gangs.

These gangs were not murderous, national networks, as gangs are often cast today. They were neighborhood-based cliques that were quick to fight over clothes, basketball, territory and who was dating the hottest girls. Sometimes they settled scores through fistfights; other times through basketball matches.

They staked out different parts of the pool. The Romans, who mostly lived up the hill in a neighborhood they called Mountain Dew, claimed one corner. Of the group, William Morris was among the most feared. Because he was small in stature but quick with his fists, everyone called him “Corn Pop.”

“A good boxer,” recalled Dennis P. Williams, Wilmington’s former mayor. “He could punch you so fast you didn’t even realize it.”

Biden, at times, has stated he was the only white lifeguard at the pool — but his contemporaries remember other whites working there. Nonetheless, Biden was mocked when he started working at the pool. The residents were unsure why he took the job, because white people were moving out of the neighborhood, not coming in.

Biden was pranked and mocked because he was quick to use his whistle, neighborhood residents recalled in interviews. But there was a special tension between him and Corn Pop, recalled Maurice Pritchett, a school principal who was on the lifeguard shift with Biden.

Neighbors recall several stories, although none of the dozen or so neighbors and peers witnessed the specific chain-and-razor confrontation. In one story, Corn Pop mouthed off at Biden to distract him while Corn Pop’s friends hopped over the pool’s fence to get in without paying. In another, Corn Pop and Biden started trading insults, and Biden was nervous that things would escalate. Richard “Mouse” Smith, a close friend of Biden’s and former head of the state NAACP, recalled telling Biden he had little to fear, that Corn Pop was mostly talk.

But after Biden’s apology, the old-timers in Wilmington recalled Biden developing a special relationship with Corn Pop, the Romans and others he met at the pool. He was often seen playing basketball with them or hanging out with them in their neighborhood, according to James Baker, a former Wilmington mayor.

Baker was a black man from Ohio who came to town as part of a volunteer program to work on gang intervention strategies. The neighborhood gangs treated him like an outsider, Baker said, but did not seem to have any problem with Biden, even though he’s white.

“They trusted him because he played ball with them, but they told me I didn’t belong,” Baker said. “I don’t know if they even knew he was a lawyer.”

Biden went on to work as a lawyer, a county councilman and then to federal office. Morris ran into and out of trouble, even as the neighborhood cliques faded away. He eventually worked as a security guard along the port. He was known as Corn Pop until the day he died, in 2016.

robert.samuels@washpost.com

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