Schulz Museum exhibit honors ‘Peanuts' comic strip's first African-American character
Before Black History Month started, the life of Martin Luther King Jr. was ended, but his influence continues as a catalyst for breaking silence over important subjects. The same year of his assassination in 1968, a lesser-known “Peanuts” character was created.
The “50 Years of Franklin” exhibition celebrates the beloved African-American character in the comic strip, who became a regular member of the gang after Charles M. Schulz received letters from schoolteacher Harriet Glickman.
She believed this integration would be helpful to change attitudes toward race at the time. Kate Eilertsen, curator at Charles M. Schulz Museum these last four months, sees how far the country has come in its views but wishes it had gone even further by now.
“Things haven’t changed enough,” said Eilertsen in a phone interview, “that’s one reason we decided to do this. To say, look at how far we’ve come, and what can we do about it?”
The main message behind the gallery is: it doesn’t need to be a big impact, but everything someone does can help the issue of racism. Glickman’s impact led many generations of “Peanuts” fans to grow up reading the strip as if this was all commonplace.
Children don’t look at the world the way adults do, so when Franklin first met Charlie Brown at the beach, finding his ball and commenting on his crooked sandcastle, all that comes through is the relatability of new-found friendship and a humorous scene.
“When I used to read these as a kid,” said visitor Tilak Sundaresan, “I remember not ever thinking Franklin was a separate character, which is the most powerful thing about it.”
He was often seen in school with the other children, and through Schulz’s artwork, readers can see patch lines shaded across his face, as well as a distinct haircut, allowing him to stand out. Franklin is known for his dancing and later appeared in animated TV specials.
Fans really don’t know much about him, which makes sense, given his overall lack of a voice at times. In 1992 on Saturday Night Live, comedian Chris Rock criticized Schulz for not giving him something to latch on to, like a piano, blanket, dust cloud or football.
“He didn’t have a big personality,” said Eilertsen, “but was a quiet, sweet, smart kid, and everybody loved him.”
The showcase allows Franklin to truly be heard and understood better, with a collection of numerous panels he was featured in, and background on his origin. With a mix of red, white and black colors on bold print, quotes between Glickman and Schulz are shown.
Their communication adds historical charm, with original letters presented to provide context on Schulz’s struggle to make it happen. Along with popular merchandise, there’s a wall to write letters, adding to the theme of having a voice on issues one cares about.
“None of this ever occurred to me,” said Sundaresan, “that this could have possibly been prompted by a correspondence with another person urging him to do this.”
Glickman was later interviewed by the museum in 2014, where she discusses what it was like writing back and forth to Schulz. It can be watched at schulzmuseum.org and will be screened in their theater from Feb. 1 to July 31, with the schedule found in the lobby.
Being able to read all the framed letters from Glickman and other elated parents from the time period is the true highlight, as it allowed Schulz to contemplate his decision to make Franklin and brought out his best intentions to connect with as many people as he could.
“He was committed to always writing his fans back letters,” said Eilertsen, “and would spend time every day dictating to his secretary what to say, or hand wrote them himself.”
The theory of this exhibit remains in the possibility of speaking up for things that matter. It doesn’t have to be a highly contested topic, because even the smaller, more quiet dialogues can make a difference in the lives of those who experience them on a daily basis.
Younger “Peanuts” fans grew up inherently knowing the endearing qualities that remind them of why they love characters like Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy, but understanding how Franklin came to life in the strip is a vital piece of its lasting legacy.
“I took him for granted,” said Sundaresan, “which is an important thing to do, but it does make me want to come back and reread those strips with this context.”
With the exhibit set to stay up for about eight months, it’s clear the museum’s intention was to expand beyond just Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a Black History Month tie-in. While the Franklin exhibit makes a point and gets more overall attention due to its historical relevance, Eilertsen said she hopes the show’s impact doesn’t end there.
Eilertsen said she believes black history ought to be commemorated all year long. She said she hopes “50 Years of Franklin” will show how everyone can, and should, have a voice.
“Talk to your friends, neighbors and teachers about these things and do something if you can,” said Eilertsen, “that’s really the main message behind the exhibition.”