Like many children of the 70s, I was wild for Charles Schulz's Peanuts, and had the merchandise to prove it. I was a Snoopy girl, for the most part, but not averse to receiving items featuring other characters---Linus, Schroeder, the caustic Lucy, PigPen, and, of course, Charlie Brown. My father was a sucker for the comparatively butch Peppermint Patty, and Marcie, the bespectacled hanger-on who referred to Patty as “Sir.”
But there was one character I don’t remember seeing on any Peanuts swag in 1970s Indiana…. Actually, that’s not accurate. I don’t remember any Shermy sweatshirts. Female second bananas like Violet, the original, i.e. non-Peppermint Patty, and Frieda were also underrepresented, despite the latter’s oft-mentioned naturally curly hair.
The character I’m thinking of never became a major player, but he was notable. Ground-breaking even. Can you guess?
Thats right: Franklin, the only African-American member of the Peanuts gang.
(An African-American toddler, Milo, below, had a 17-strip run in 1977 when Charlie Brown had to skip town after exacting his revenge on the kite-eating tree… That's it. Poor Franklin.)
Franklin owes his existence, in large part, to Harriet Glickman, a white teacher from LA, who found letter writing one of the few forms of activism in which a mother of three children---all squarely within the Peanuts demographic---could fully participate. Raised by liberal parents to consider herself a global citizen, and to speak out against injustice, she wrote the authors of several leading comic strips in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in April, 1968. Would the creators of Peanuts and Mary Worth consider introducing a black character into the mix, as a first step on what Glickman foresaw as a “long and tortuous road” toward a future climate of “open friendship, trust and mobility” between the races?
Mary Worth’s Allen Saunders declined, apparently saying that he shared Glickman's sentiments but feared the syndicate would drop his strip if he followed her suggestion.
Schulz didn’t exactly leap at the chance, either, saying that he was in the same boat as the other sympathetic cartoonists who’d begged off. What he feared wasn’t so much the syndicate’s response, as the suspicion that he might be seen as “patronizing our Negro friends.”
Glickman persisted, asking his permission to share his letter with some of her “Negro friends,” all parents. Perhaps they could offer some thoughts that might induce the cartoonist to say yes.
One of these friends, Glickman’s neighbor, Ken Kelly, promptly fired off his own letter to Schulz, writing:
I’d like to express an opinion as a Negro father of two young boys. We have a situation in America in which racial enmity is constantly portrayed.
Like Glickman, he felt that a “casual day-to-day scene” featuring a non-white character would give his sons and other children of color a chance to see themselves reflected in the strip, while promoting “racial amity” to readers of all races.
Glickman expressed hope that Peanuts would eventually grow to include more than one black child:
Let them be as adorable as the others…but please…allow them a Lucy!
Within weeks of receiving Kelly’s letter, and just over two months into Glickman’s letter-writing campaign, Schulz reached a decision. He wrote Glickman that she should check the paper the week of July 29, 1968.
Franklin, his skin tone indicated by closely set diagonal lines, made his debut in a bathing suit, returning Charlie Brown’s runaway beach ball. The encounter took three days to play out, during which Franklin and Charlie Brown form an alliance of vacationing children whose usual playmates are elsewhere. It would seem that the major difference between them is that Franklin’s dad is in Vietnam. Obviously, a lot of thought went into their casual dialogue.
Benign as Franklin was, his presence sparked outrage. Some Southern readers cried foul when he showed up in the same classroom as Marcie and Peppermint Patty. Others felt Franklin wasn’t black enough.
Ultimately Franklin never achieved A-list status, but he did resonate with certain readers, notably William Bell, a diversity officer working with the Cincinnati Police Department.
Visit Mashable to see reproductions of Glickman and Schulz’s correspondence. And watch the video above to hear more about her upbringing and another comic that featured black characters, Dateline: Danger!, a collaboration between Saunders’ son John and artist Al McWilliams.