The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘Peanuts’ team is creating scholarships to support diversity in the arts

Cartoonist Robb Armstrong, who shares his surname with “Peanuts” character Franklin Armstrong, is eager to see the art that will emerge from the Armstrong Project, which will provide $200,000 in endowments to two HBCUs. (Tito Gibbs)
5 min

Robb Armstrong remembers the thrill of first seeing a character who looked like him within the mostly-White world of “Peanuts.”

Armstrong was 6 years old when Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz introduced a Black playmate named Franklin in the summer of 1968. That change, rolled out despite concerns from the syndication service, represented something profound to a West Philadelphia child who had a precocious gift with a pen. Says Armstrong, who would grow up to create the popular syndicated strip “JumpStart”: “It was a prominent beam of possibility.”

Armstrong didn’t know then that a schoolteacher’s recent letters to Schulz advocating for more diversity had led to the creation of Franklin. And he couldn’t have guessed that about a quarter-century later, Schulz would ask for his permission to give the character the full name of Franklin Armstrong — as an artistic salute to his colleague who was a creator for the same syndicate.

Today, Armstrong simply knows he wants to pay such inspiration forward.

Peanuts Worldwide will announce Monday the launch of the Armstrong Project, which will provide $200,000 in endowments to two HBCUs: Howard University in Washington and Hampton University in Virginia.

The project will offer a scholarship to a student at each school who is studying the arts, animation, entertainment or communication, as well as provide mentorships and internships.

“I’m hopeful that the awareness and action we are creating through the Armstrong Project will grow into extraordinary expressions of creativity and accomplishment, as these students launch lifelong careers in the arts,” says Jean Schulz, widow of the cartoonist and president of the board of directors at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. “I’m personally so excited to see what they will achieve.”

Leaders at each university expressed their gratitude in statements to announce the project.

The endowments also come at a time when Black creators are underrepresented in comics syndication. In 2020, Steenz (“Heart of the City”) and Bianca Xunise (“Six Chix”) became two of the few African American women ever to appear on mainstream comics pages.

Newspaper comics hardly ever feature black women as artists. But two new voices have arrived.

Armstrong, though, doesn’t focus on such “dismal statistics.” Instead, he places his hope in students’ aspirations. “I don’t want things to change — I want kids to change in favor of the things they want to do,” says Armstrong, noting: “Things are best when young people don’t feel deterred.”

The cartoonist, speaking by phone from Burbank, Calif., says it was an internship that altered the course of his life.

As an adolescent, Armstrong was transferred to the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., by his arts-supportive mother. The school had recently gone coed, and Armstrong recounts being not only one of its few Black students then, but also one of its relatively few boys.

Yet when Armstrong was 17, the connections in that setting led to a three-week internship with local artist Signe Wilkinson, who would later become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. From that experience, he learned firsthand how to be a “working pragmatic” cartoonist, hitting the bricks to make your art sales and refusing to take rejections to heart. Soon after, the teen cartoonist was drawing editorial artwork for the Philadelphia Tribune.

Armstrong’s art garnered further support in the ’80s while he attended Syracuse University, as his campus newspaper comic grew in popularity. Several years later, he signed with United Feature Syndicate — which also distributed “Peanuts” — and launched “JumpStart,” which centers on a Black family with four children. At the time, few Black families appeared on the comics page.

Armstrong was in his mid-20s when he met Schulz, whose advice and acceptance had a major impact on the younger cartoonist. Now, a veteran cartoonist himself — he turns 60 this week — he wants his connection to the Franklin Armstrong character, as well as his position on the Schulz Museum board, to make a difference. “Once you know the story about Schulz and I, it’s more than interesting — it’s deeply meaningful,” he says. “But I have to do something with it.”

“I want kids to feel that they have a road map provided to them,” notes Armstrong, who says he’s eager to visit both campuses and say in person to the students: “I’m looking for an intern — I need to see your work. I want to see what you’ve got!”

The Armstrong Project brings the educational origin of the Franklin character full circle. Harriet Glickman was a retired schoolteacher in Burbank in 1968 when, in response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she wrote to cartoonists to propose introducing Black characters. She had seen firsthand the power of comics among young readers, and she viewed the comics page as a positive forum amid the era’s sociopolitical turbulence. After some correspondence, Schulz decided to introduce Franklin.

Before he did, though, his syndicate said: “ ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” Glickman, who died two years ago, told The Post in 2017. “If you know Sparky, you know what his response was. He said: ‘Either you run it the way I drew it, or I quit.’ ”

Glickman also recounted: “Schulz received some messages from the South from [editors], saying: ‘Please don’t send us any more strips with Black children in the classroom with White children. We’re going through forced integration in our schools and don’t want to see any more of these strips.’ ”

Franklin continued to appear in the classroom in the ’60s, paving the way for Franklin Armstrong to help endow classrooms in 2022 and beyond.