Kenneth C. Kelly just wanted to buy a house near his office. An electrical engineer, he had moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1953; four years later, with a growing family, he dreamed of having a home in one of the city’s fast-growing suburbs.
He had zeroed in on Gardena, not far from his job as an engineer at the Hughes Aircraft Co. in Culver City. But he couldn’t get a real estate agent to return his calls, and he knew why: He was Black.
“They would play games, say nothing was available, blah blah blah,” he said in a 2009 interview.
Jokingly, Mr. Kelly asked a white friend if he would buy a house for him; he’ll pay him back, Mr. Kelly said. To his surprise the friend said yes, and a few weeks later the white residents in the neighborhood were shocked to see Mr. Kelly and his family moving in.
“The neighbors were up in arms,” he said. “But it was my house.”
At work, Mr. Kelly was a respected scientist, designing antennas to communicate with satellites and spacecraft; in Gardena, he was often treated as a blight. Someone wrote an anonymous note begging him to leave, claiming that he and his family were dragging down home values in the neighborhood.
Harriet Glickman, a white, socially conscious colleague on the fair housing council. She had reached out to Charles M. Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” to ask if he would consider adding a Black character. Mr. Schulz had politely demurred, saying it might seem patronizing.
Undeterred, Ms. Glickman thought that Mr. Kelly might have more luck if he made the same appeal to Mr. Schulz. In a letter to him, Mr. Kelly argued for a Black character who would be just one of the gang, a “supernumerary” whose skin color would be incidental.
“An accusation of being patronizing,” he wrote, “would be a small price to pay for the positive results that would accrue!”
His words won Mr. Schulz over, and Franklin Armstrong debuted in “Peanuts” on July 31, 1968, as a friend of Charlie Brown who just happened to be Black.
Kenneth Constantine Kelly was born on March 6, 1928, in Manhattan and raised on the Lower East Side, where he was one of only a few Black children among a sea of recent European immigrants. He later said that he could count 10 languages being spoken in his elementary school class.