Franklin, ‘Peanuts’ First Black Character, Turns 50

Harriet Glickman, who in 1968 convinced cartoonist Charles Schulz to create a black Peanuts character, sits with Marleik Walker, the boy voicing Franklin in The Peanuts Movie. (Walter Ray Watson/NPR)
Harriet Glickman, who in 1968 convinced cartoonist Charles Schulz to create a black Peanuts character, sits with Marleik Walker, the boy voicing Franklin in The Peanuts Movie. (Walter Ray Watson/NPR)

Fifty years ago, Charlie Brown lost his beach ball.

It was found and returned to him by a boy named Franklin, and the two proceeded to build a sandcastle together.

The simple encounter of two boys on a beach was how cartoonist Charles Schulz introduced the first black character in his widely read comic strip, Peanuts. It was July 31, 1968 — just months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — and the newest member of the Peanuts gang was a big deal.

It was especially defining for a 6-year-old Robb Armstrong, author of Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life and creator of JumpStart, one of the most widely syndicated black comic strips ever.

“1968 is a very vivid year for me,” Armstrong told NPR’s Renee Montagne in an interview for Weekend Edition. Two months after King was killed, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Armstrong’s older brother also died that year, just 30 days before Franklin’s debut.

For Armstrong, a young black boy who declared to his mother at the age of 3 that he was going to be a cartoonist, Franklin’s inclusion was extraordinary.

Schulz, however, had been wary of including a black child in the Peanuts gang and was concerned that it would come off as patronizing. That’s what perhaps contributed to the wholesome, almost-too-perfect character of Franklin: He was a good student and kind to everyone and was even, as some critiqued, a bit bland.

But to Armstrong, Schulz’s inclusion of Franklin was an honest introduction, even if he lacked the quirks of other Peanuts characters.

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SOURCE: CECILIA LEI and JAMES DELAHOUSSAYE 
NPR