Harriet Glickman, teacher who got ‘Peanuts’ its first black character, dies at 93

April 16, 2020

Ken Kelly, Harriet Glickman, and Franklin, the first black ‘Peanuts’ character, photographed in 2015

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, Harriet Glickman was so angry and outraged she asked herself what she could do to change the “fear, hate and violence” that led to his death.

The answer ultimately led Glickman to help change the course of comic-strip history.

Glickman, who persuaded Charles M. Schulz to introduce a black character into his enormously popular “Peanuts” comic strip in 1968, died late last month. She was 93.

Glickman died at her home in Sherman Oaks, CA, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disease, according to her daughter, Katherine Moore-MacMillan.

It was from a table in that same Sherman Oaks home 52 years ago that Glickman, then a 42-year-old school teacher and mother raising three children, wrote a letter to Schulz, the famous cartoonist and creator of “Peanuts,” which was published in hundreds of newspapers around the United States, reaching nearly 100 million readers.

In her letter, dated April 15, 1968, Glickman, who was white, wrote that her family loved the “Peanuts” characters and was “totally Peanuts oriented.” She said her teenage daughter, Kathy, had “Peanuts” sweatshirts and posters; 10-year-old son Paul was a Charlie Brown Little Leaguer and had memorized every “Peanuts” paperback book; and 3 1/2-year-old Simon had his own Snoopy he slept with. Glickman said she and her husband kept pertinent “Peanuts” cartoons on desk and bulletin boards “as guards against pomposity.”

But, she also wrote, something was missing. All of the characters in the “Peanuts” world were white.

Introducing black children “into the group of Schulz characters would help in shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids,” she wrote. She referred to the “vast sea of misunderstanding, fear, hate and violence” that led to King’s assassination.

Glickman knew it was not an easy request.

“I am well aware of the very long and tortuous road ahead,” she wrote. “I’m sure one doesn’t make radical changes in so important an institution without a lot of shock waves from syndicates, clients, etc. You have, however, a stature and reputation which can withstand a great deal.”

Glickman said she didn’t expect an answer, but Schulz did respond — and gently said no to her request. He noted that he and other fellow cartoonists “would like very much to be able to do this.” But, he added, they were afraid of “patronizing” the African American community.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” he wrote.

Glickman, however, wasn’t discouraged. She asked Schulz for his permission to ask some of her African American friends about their reaction to the idea. Schulz said yes and added that he would be “very anxious” to hear what they said. Glickman’s friends liked the idea, with one saying it would help give black youths a feeling of identity and help race relations.

“I have drawn an episode which I think will please you,” he wrote Glickman on July 1, 1968.

In a groundbreaking comic strip on July 31, 1968, Schulz introduced his first black character, Franklin Armstrong, a young boy carrying a beach ball, who casually walked up to Charlie Brown and asked him, “Is this your beach ball?”

Charlie Brown answered: “Hey! Yeah! Thank you very much! My silly sister threw it into the water.”

In the first three strips featuring the new character, Franklin and Charlie talk about their fathers, baseball and building sand castles.

That was the start of integrating the “Peanuts” world — and the effort was met with a largely positive reaction.

But there were some, especially in the South, who weren’t so happy with a black character in “Peanuts.”

One Mississippi editor even went so far as to write the syndicate publishing “Peanuts” not to portray black and white children attending school together.

But, Glickman said, Schulz kept his word and told the head of the syndicate, “Either you print it as I draw it, or I quit.”

Glickman was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on Nov. 17, 1926, as the first child of Russian immigrants, Toni and Harry Ratner. In 1931, the family moved to Chicago. Glickman graduated from Hyde Park High School and completed two years at the University of Michigan before transferring to UCLA to join her family, which had relocated to Los Angeles. She graduated from UCLA in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in English, subsequently obtaining a teaching credential.

She married Richard B. Glickman on March 26, 1950. They lived in Los Angeles and Gardena before moving to the San Fernando Valley, where they bought their home in Sherman Oaks in 1965; Richard Glickman died in 2018.

She began her career as a social studies and special education teacher at Luther Burbank Junior High School. She eventually taught at the Frostig Center and later at the Dubnoff Center, which both help students with disabilities. She stepped away from teaching temporarily to raise her three children.

But in 1970, two years after she persuaded Schulz to introduce Franklin, she went back to work, first at UCLA Extension.

In 1982, she began a second career as director of programs and services for the Southern California Association for Philanthropy, which later became Southern California Grandmarkers.

When she retired in 1999, Southern California Grandmarkers members created the Harriet Glickman Fund for Children. Glickman then worked as an independent consultant, widely respected as one of Southern California’s most knowledgeable experts in the field of philanthropy.

“She was driven by her commitment to achieving a more just, fair and civil society,” Moore-MacMillan said about her mother. “That led to her engagement in progressive political and social activism, from the civil rights and anti-war movements to her support for Democratic candidates.”

Over the years, Moore-MacMillan said, Glickman heard from African Americans around the country who told her what it meant for them to see Franklin in “Peanuts.”

“She often shared her amazement at the enduring impact of the Franklin story in light of the continued inequities in our society,” Moore-MacMillan said, “but she never lost her sense of optimism or belief that one person can make a difference.”

Two years ago, Glickman told the Franklin story to a diverse audience of more than 200 children and adults at a “Giving Thanks” event at American University of Health Sciences, in Signal Hill. It was Glickman’s 92nd birthday and the youngsters sang a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” to her, bringing a broad smile to her face.

During the event, she introduced a black teenager in the audience, Marleik Walker, who did Franklin’s voice in “The Peanuts Movie,” which was released in 2015. Walker, at the time, was 16 and a sophomore at Los Alamitos High School.

“I didn’t know all about what happened in the past, but we’re all more knowledgeable now, thanks to Mrs. Glickman,” he said to loud applause.

“I want to thank her again for all she did for African Americans,” Walker, now a senior, said Monday, April 6, adding it was “an honor and blessing” to know Glickman. “The ‘Peanuts’ strip went all over the world, so she really changed the situation for African Americans in a lot of places. I am sad about her passing.”

In her closing remarks to the children in Signal Hill in 2018, Glickman noted that while some things have changed for the better, others have not.

“We still have so many problems on how we see each other,” she told the children. “You can make a difference in making the world a better place. When you see something that makes you feel angry or upset, don’t just complain, do something about it. And remember that we all care for each other; we’re all the same loving, caring people.”

Glickman, who died March 27, 2020 is survived by her sister, Joanna Merlin Dretzin; her children, Katherine Moore-MacMillan, Paul Glickman and Simon Glickman; and her grandsons, Jesse MacMillan and Jonah and Caleb Glickman.