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.
"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.
"I think Schulz played it smartly," said Armstrong. "He was always very thoughtful into how he treated his characters."
"He knew he had inspired me"
When Armstrong was signed onto United Feature Syndicate, the same service that distributed Schulz's work, he made a request to his editor to meet his childhood hero. She told him no but recommended that Armstrong send Schulz a comic strip instead.
Armstrong did just that, sending Schulz a JumpStart comic of Marcy Cobb, one of the main characters, incorrectly singing the popular 1960s song "Hang On Sloopy" in the shower, swapping the word "Sloopy" for "Snoopy."
A year and half later, Armstrong finally received an opportunity to visit and meet Schulz, and received a shocking surprise: Schulz had framed and hung Armstrong's comic above his workspace, on the wall of his uncluttered studio.
"I was aghast," Armstrong said, recalling how Schulz complimented JumpStart's characters, predicting Armstrong's long and successful career.
"On some level, he knew he had inspired me and that I would be speaking about this black family in ways he never could," Armstrong said, remarking that Schulz understood that he didn't know a black child's life enough to write about it in an authentic way.
It was the reason why Schulz supported Armstrong's career, and the momentous meeting was the start of Armstrong and Schulz's close friendship, one that lasted until Schulz's death in 2000.
In the 1990s, Schulz called Armstrong with a special request: Schulz was coming out with a video and realized that Franklin did not have a last name. Schulz asked for his permission to make "Armstrong" Franklin's last name. It was a moment Armstrong called "moving."
"I was so taken aback because my mother never lived to see any of this," Armstrong said, remembering her confidence in him and the diligence she took to enroll him in exclusive, mostly white art programs as a kid. "It all came together when he said, 'Could I name him Franklin Armstrong?' "
To this day, Armstrong remains in awe of the "tremendous honor" of having Franklin carry his last name and Schulz's influence on his career.
"He inspired a kid. I don't think there's a higher calling in this life," said Armstrong. "He inspired some kid 3,000 miles away ... it's incredible what happens when you inspire a kid, and that's what Schulz did."
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