On this episode of Finding Fred, host Carvell Wallace talks to Francois Clemmons, who played a black police officer on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “Not only is it unusual to have a black authority figure on TV in the late 1960s,” Carvell says, “but his role makes Officer Clemmons the only black recurring character on all of children's television at the time.” Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had only been on the air for a year when, in May of 1969, Fred Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to soak his feet in a pool with him. This simple act was hugely radical for the time, and serves as an example of Fred showing his viewers how to love someone. “Sometimes,” he tells Officer Clemmons, “just a minute like this will really make a difference.” But there were some loves that even Mr. Rogers didn’t think the world was ready to see.
The revolutionary love of Mr. Rogers wasn’t preached at viewers, but simply demonstrated. Fred put it best himself: “Attitudes are caught, not taught.” In an interview from 1994, he recalled visiting a nursery school and the teacher had invited a sculptor to the classroom. “She said, ‘I don’t want you teaching sculpting, I want you simply to sit with the children and do what you feel you’d like to do with the clay.’ Well, the kids started using clay...in the most wonderful ways, and that wouldn’t have happened if this gifted sculptor hadn’t loved clay right in front of them.” So Fred wanted to demonstrate loving the clay: accepting people for who they were, loving them unconditionally, taking care of the things around you. Carvell’s friend and prolific writer Eve Ewing remembers watching him feed the fish on the show: “Seeing this adult engage in this small moment of caring for another living creature that requires just a pause of patience and quiet is just so beautiful to me. He was showing us how to be good…[by] actually just doing it, like feeding the fish, or helping your neighbor with something, or being nice to somebody that you know that other people are maybe not nice to all the time.”
Carvell tells us that in 1964, swimming pools were hugely segregated; Francois says, “People were behaving in a very, very unkind way, and I talked to Fred about that, how helpless they made me feel. And he said, ‘We'll see. We'll see what we can do, Francois.’” Then he brought a kiddie pool onto the set of the show and invited Officer Clemmons to soak his feet along with him; “cool water on a hot day.” Francois tells Carvell that he was surprised by the effect it had: “Everywhere I went, people wanted to tell me their private story about that scene...they said, ‘Look, Mom, Dad...there's Francois and Mr. Rogers with their feet in the same pool. One's black, and one's white.’ So, yes, they are, aren't they? And they're friends.”
Francois himself didn’t quite believe in his friendship with Fred at first, until one day, a couple years into working on the show, he remembers watching Fred wrap up the show his usual way: taking off his shoes, removing his signature cardigan, and saying, “You've made it a special day for me. You know how? By just you're being yourself. Yeah. There's only one person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” Francois’s voice chokes with emotion as he recounts, “I dared to say to myself, ‘He's talking to me.’ ...There was something in his voice, something in his eyes. It was important to me to ask him, ‘Fred, were you talking to me?’ I had never had somebody say that to me in my whole life. Oh, Lord, I can't tell when he said, ‘Yes, yes. I've been talking to you for two years, and you heard me today.’” For Francois, that love, that acceptance, was a religious experience. “I saw divinity,” he says simply. “That’s the only thing I can tell people. I have never experienced anything like it since, and I just collapsed in his arms.”
But Francois had a secret, a big one. Would Fred love him in spite of it? Would Fred believe that America could? Or would Francois be called on to make an enormous sacrifice to keep their good work going? Listen to Francois’ story of his relationship with Fred Rogers and his time on the show on this episode of Finding Fred.
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