When Fred Rogers and Francois Clemmons Broke Down Race Barriers on a Historic Episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1969)

Last year’s Fred Rogers doc­u­men­tary, Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor, pro­pelled François Clem­mons—bet­ter known to gen­er­a­tions of Mis­ter Rogers Neigh­bor­hood view­ers as Offi­cer Clemmons—back into the inter­na­tion­al spot­light.

One of the most strik­ing anec­dotes in the doc con­cerns a 1969 episode in which Mis­ter Rogers, who was white, invit­ed Offi­cer Clem­mons, who is black, to join him in soak­ing his bare feet in a back­yard baby pool on a hot summer’s day.

It was one of those giant leaps for mankind moments that pass­es itself off as a homey, fair­ly unre­mark­able step, though as Clem­mons told his friend Karl Lind­holm in a Sto­ryCorps inter­view, Rogers under­stood the pow­er­ful mes­sage this ges­ture would send.

Like­wise, his choice of Clem­mons to embody a friend­ly cop for his tele­vi­sion neigh­bor­hood, a part Clem­mons, who played the role for 30 years, was ini­tial­ly hes­i­tant to accept:

Fred came to me and said, “I have this idea, you could be a police offi­cer.” That kind of stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the ghet­to. I did not have a pos­i­tive opin­ion of police offi­cers. Police­men were sick­ing police dogs and water hoses on peo­ple. And I real­ly had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excit­ed about being Offi­cer Clem­mons at all.

Rogers, who had met Clem­mons in a Pitts­burgh area church where the trained opera singer was per­form­ing, pre­vailed, stress­ing the impact such a pos­i­tive por­tray­al of a black author­i­ty fig­ure could have on the com­mu­ni­ty.

Offi­cer Clem­mons, the first recur­ring black char­ac­ter on a children’s series, paved the way for the mul­tira­cial casts of Sesame Street and The Elec­tric Com­pa­ny, also on PBS.

If a pic­ture is worth a thou­sand words, a song can also pack quite a wal­lop. It’s hard not to get choked up hear­ing Clem­mons sing “There Are Many Ways to Say I Love You,” above, a tune he reprised in 1993, for his final appear­ance on the show.

Such sen­ti­ments are a nat­ur­al fit in pro­grams aimed at the preschool crowd, whose love of their fam­i­lies is rein­forced at every turn, but it’s still unusu­al to see these feel­ings artic­u­lat­ed so pure­ly when the only peo­ple in sight are grown men.

Clem­mons learned not to doubt Roger’s sin­cer­i­ty when he said, “I like you just the way you are.”

And Rogers grew to accept his friend’s sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, though this embrace came a bit less nat­u­ral­ly. In an inter­view with Van­i­ty Fair’s Chris Azzopar­di, Clem­mons was philo­soph­i­cal, recall­ing his “sur­ro­gate father’s” request to steer clear of gay clubs so as not to endan­ger the show’s whole­some image:

Sac­ri­fice was a part of my des­tiny. In oth­er words, I did not want to be a shame to my race. I didn’t want to be a scan­dal to the show. I didn’t want to hurt the man who was giv­ing me so much, and I also knew the val­ue as a black per­former of hav­ing this show, this plat­form. Black actors and actresses—SAG and Equity—90 per­cent of them are not work­ing. If you know that and here you are, on a nation­al plat­form you’re gonna sab­o­tage your­self?

I weighed this thing, the pros and the cons. And I thought, I not only have a nation­al plat­form, I’m get­ting paid. I was also get­ting a pro­mo­tion that I sim­ply could not have afford­ed to pay for. Every time I did the show, and every time Fred took us across the coun­try to do three, four, five per­son­al appear­ances, my name was being writ­ten into somebody’s heart—some lit­tle kid who would grow up and say, “Oh, I remem­ber him, I remem­ber that he could sing, I remem­ber that he was on Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood.” I didn’t have the mon­ey to pay for that, but I was get­ting it free. There were so many things that I got back for that sac­ri­fice that I kept my big mouth shut, kept my head down, kept my shoul­der to the plough.

Stu­dents at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, where Clem­mons was a long time fac­ul­ty pres­ence, were well acquaint­ed with the self-pro­claimed “Divaman’s”’ flam­boy­ant side:

Clem­mons has added col­or and soul to the Mid­dle­bury Col­lege scene for near­ly 25 years. As Alexan­der Twi­light Artist in Res­i­dence and direc­tor of the Mar­tin Luther King Spir­i­tu­al Choir, he is known by many names: the divo, the mae­stro, the rev­erend, doc­tor-madam-hon­ey-man, sportin’ life, and even black mag­ic. He has played the role of pro­fes­sor, choir­mas­ter, res­i­dent vocal soloist, advi­sor, con­fi­dant, and com­mu­ni­ty cheer­leader. Yet his pur­pose is sin­gu­lar: to share hope through song.

Lis­ten to Sto­ryCorps pod­cast episode #462 about Mis­ter Rogers’ and Fran­cois Clem­mons’ famous foot bath, as well as an inci­dent that took place five years pri­or where pro­test­ers staged a “wade in” at the “Whites Only” pool at St. Augus­tine, Florida’s Mon­son Motor Lodge.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Col­ors of Mis­ter Rogers’ Hand-Knit Sweaters from 1979 to 2001: A Visu­al Graph Cre­at­ed with Data Sci­ence

Mis­ter Rogers Turns Kids On to Jazz with Help of a Young Wyn­ton Marsalis and Oth­er Jazz Leg­ends (1986)

Mr. Rogers Takes Break­danc­ing Lessons from a 12-Year-Old (1985)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City on March 11 as host of  The­ater of the Apes book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • JV says:

    Rogers is one of those rare peo­ple where, the more you know about him, the deep­er you get into his life, the bet­ter he seems. He was a sin­gu­lar fig­ure, we have no cur­rent corol­lary, unfor­tu­nate­ly.

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