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How The First Black 'Peanuts' Character Integrated A Beloved Comic

Looking back on how the first black "Peanuts" character was introduced during a polarizing time in U.S. history.
Posted at 6:41 PM, Jul 31, 2018

Franklin, one of the iconic characters from "Peanuts," turns 50. He's not as famous as Charlie Brown, Lucy or Snoopy, but he is the first black character in the "Peanuts" gang. And his origin story begins during a polarizing time.

"Peanuts" was created during the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s. During that time, the Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregated schools, activists sat-in and protested for equal rights and, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. 

Days after King's death, Harriet Glickman, a frustrated retired school teacher, wrote to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz asking him to incorporate a black character into his comics. 

At the The Charles M. Schulz Museum, Glickman said, "That letter was the result of my whole life. It was seeing racism in this country, knowing that no matter what, there was ugliness and violence, and my little letter was nothing compared to the little girl who was stood in the doorway to integrate a school with crowds of people spitting at her and throwing things. So we had all it was the history that went into putting that letter together."

In a letter, Glickman suggested that “the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum impact.”

Schulz wrote back saying he liked the idea but didn't know how to go about it as a white cartoonist. He didn't want to appear patronizing. According to Glickman, she asked a few of her African-American friends to write back to Schulz to give him a few suggestions. In 1999, Schulz described his struggles with creating the character on the NBC Today Show. 

"I wasn't sure I can do it frankly," Schulz said. "I don't know what it's like to grow up as a black kid. I only know what it's like to grow up as a barber's son in Saint Paul. I have my own experiences but I got two letters from fathers who said, we understand your problem, but try it anyway. Just go ahead and try it."

Some critics say, unlike Schulz other characters with personality flaws or quirkiness, Franklin seemed to be all too perfect. Many attribute that lack of character development to Schultz's fear of patronizing black readers.

After several publications, Schulz said an editor from the South protested because he drew Franklin sitting next to Peppermint Patty in class. Others wanted Schulz to get rid of the character completely, but Schulz said, "Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How's that?"

The "Peanuts" comic strip ran until 2000 when Shulz died. In that time, "Peanuts" was published in more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and translated to 21 languages. It has reached more than 300 million people around the world.