LEILA FADEL, HOST:
In 1968, Franklin Armstrong was introduced to Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the "Peanuts" gang.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franklin Armstrong) Charlie Brown, I am impressed by your unfailing optimism.
FADEL: Now, Peanuts Worldwide has launched the Armstrong Project in honor of the first Black character. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: A "Peanuts" pop-up during last weekend's Comic-Con in San Diego featured Franklin Armstrong and The Armstrong Project, an initiative to support up-and-coming Black writers, animators and cartoonists. Among those celebrating was Bruce W. Smith, creator of Disney's "The Proud Family" series.
BRUCE W SMITH: Seeing Franklin was sort of, like, a revelation 'cause here's a character that represents, you know, you. The first time I saw him on a special, he's dancing. And I'm like, everybody trying to do this Franklin dance now. You know what I mean? So, I mean, that meant something, you know, to a lot of us. And certainly it inspired my path as an artist.
DEL BARCO: According to the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 4% of animators are Black. Cartoonist Robb Armstrong is hoping to change those numbers.
ROBB ARMSTRONG: When I came into the industry, I was one of only four African Americans in the business. Others have followed me, but the numbers are very, very small.
DEL BARCO: It was a schoolteacher in California, Harriet Glickman, who wrote to Charles Schulz in 1968 suggesting he integrate "Peanuts." It was a time of turmoil in the country and also for Armstrong, then a 6-year-old in West Philadelphia.
ARMSTRONG: Dr. King is assassinated. Robert Kennedy is assassinated. It's completely crazy. And my oldest brother is caught in the doors of a moving subway train. My brother was killed at 13. That same day - July 1, 1968 - Franklin is introduced into "Peanuts."
DEL BARCO: Armstrong says that was a sign that he should become a cartoonist. By 1990, his comic strip "JumpStart" was syndicated, and he became friends with his childhood idol, Charles Schulz. Armstrong says one day, Schulz called to talk about Franklin.
ARMSTRONG: He says he has no last name. It's not good. It's not respectful to him as a character. Can I use your last name? I said, Sparky, yes, of course.
DEL BARCO: Armstrong says his friend Sparky Schulz remained a mentor, and now he wants to pay it forward. He teamed up with Peanuts Worldwide to provide internships and guidance for The Armstrong Project.
ARMSTRONG: I don't want to sound too highfalutin here, but it's a very serious job. It's not the same as doodling in math class. And I take it very seriously. I'm trying to bring it honor. And now I have a chance to bring young, talented people along.
DEL BARCO: The Armstrong Project also has a $200,000 endowment to give scholarships for students at historically Black colleges. Promise Robinson, a 21-year-old student at Hampton University, is one of the first recipients.
PROMISE ROBINSON: Mr. Armstrong says to start with dynamic character and can really just carry the story. So I just want to start there in something that will push the culture forward. So I'm definitely looking to be very inclusive in my stories.
DEL BARCO: The other recipient is Hailey Cartwright, a Howard University student who just turned 19.
HAILEY CARTWRIGHT: If Franklin had never been introduced to the "Peanuts" series - like, I can't fathom how different my life would be if he wasn't there. In the direction I want to take my career in animation, would I even have a chance? Like, I just wonder.
DEL BARCO: At the event during Comic-Con, Bruce W. Smith gave some advice to Cartwright and Robinson.
SMITH: Everyone's looking for more diverse projects, more diverse characters to lead their storytelling. That's why it's the perfect time for you guys to have your voice included in this.
DEL BARCO: The world, he said, is waiting to hear from you.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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