Peanuts' Franklin: Unveiling the hidden history, and the evolution of a beloved character

We know the comic strips and immediately recognize the music. We know Snoopy, the story of the great pumpkin, but until more recently no one has known much of anything about the Peanuts' character Franklin, including Minnesota Historical Society’s Program Associate Jacob Rorem.

"He’s not always gotten his full attention," said Rorem.

As Rorem reminds us, Franklin was introduced at the urging of a teacher writing Charles Schulz letters in 1968, basically begging for a Black Peanuts character.

"This is a time the fight for desegregated beaches had been going on for years," says Rorem "And Mississippi had just been forced to desegregate theirs."

That same year, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were shot and killed. Schulz put Franklin to paper, at a time when Peanuts was being read by tens of millions of people in newspaper comic strips coast to coast.

"When he first submitted it to his syndicate, his editor said ‘are you sure you want to do this? I think you should reconsider’," Rorem said. "They were afraid that southern newspapers would see that, and say we are dropping Peanuts.  He told them, ‘You print it the way I draw it, or I quit.’"

"It was a dark time, and he was needed," Robb Armstrong said.

Armstrong was a little boy at the time and became an instant fan. By 1990, he was a syndicated cartoonist himself, met Schulz and the two became fast friends. Eventually, Schulz quietly gave Franklin Armstrong's last name and the character became Franklin Armstong.  Armstrong never spoke of it for 12 years, until after Schulz passed. 

"I felt unworthy of it," said Armstrong. "So much, so I didn’t talk about it for a long time. His widow, Jeanie Shulz, walked up to me afterward and said ‘why didn’t you ever tell me that?’ I was like ‘well, it’s a personal thing. I didn’t want to walk around bragging about something like that.’ She said ‘That’s no bragging! That’s an important moment in the history of this character and in your life.’"

In the wake of Schulz's death, many continued to question why Franklin’s character wasn't further developed, like Lucy, Pigpen and the others.

"When people started accusing Shulz of being racist and Franklin was not sitting on the correct side of the table, and blah blah blah. I would do my best to defend my friend. I didn’t like him being accused of racism," Armstrong said. 

"Charles Shulz just wanted to make sure he was honest, and that he was doing it in a way that was authentic," says Rorem. " He wasn’t doing it in a way that was pandering to an African American community or audience."

Armstrong created the Armstrong Project a few years ago, which establishes hundreds of dollars worth of endowments for future black cartoonists and artists. He has also teamed up with Apple TV+ for the latest in the Snoopy Presents series, and for the very first time in Peanuts history, the focus is entirely on Franklin.

"This is a strong contribution to the culture," Armstrong said. "What I mean by that is, it is intended to start conversations. That’s where we get progress from."

As fans have always loved, this endearing lesson on friendship also includes a few nods to the past along with the opportunity of healing race relations for another generation. 

"We’re supposed to listen to our friends. We are supposed to work through things.  We’re not supposed to dictate anything to them. We are not trying to dictate anything to anyone who watches this special. This special does not preach, it just allows you to discuss," said Armstrong. " I only have one regret, he's [Schulz] not here to see it, but his spirit is in it."

On March 2, Armstrong, animator and director Raymond S. Persi, and Peanuts Worldwide Senior Vice President Melissa Menta will be at the Minnesota History Center for a panel discussion. Reservations filled up so quickly, that the Minnesota Historical Society now plans to livestream the event. You can find more information here