More than just a children’s television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood emerged as a champion of civil rights and social justice when it premiered on public television in 1968. While the U.S. was embroiled in a turbulent, and often violent, battle for racial and gender equality, Mister Rogers taught its young viewers (and hopefully parents who were also watching) the power of friendship, and being a “helper” for anyone in need.
Much of this message was carried by François Clemmons, who played the character “Officer Clemmons” for 25 years. Casting Clemmons as a police officer was groundbreaking at the time: never mind the fact that there were very few non-white actors on TV. Police were still using dogs and water cannons to attack crowds of African Americans involved in civil rights protests.
Clemmons had not planned on being on a children’s television show, or an actor at all. When he joined the cast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Clemmons had a job singing in a church—the same church where Fred Rogers would attend Sunday services. One day, in 1968, Rogers went to church with his wife, and heard Clemmons sing. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
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In the critically-acclaimed 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which chronicles the philosophical path of Fred Rogers and his eponymous TV show, Clemmons explains how his identity as a gay man was an “open secret,” but he accepted Rogers’ suggestion to not come out publicly, as it would have scared away the viewers that they were trying to reach. It was enough to have Clemmons on television as a black actor, and a positive role model. They simply wanted to fight battles they had a chance of winning.
Times have changed, for the U.S. and for Clemmons. A series of high-profile interviews post-Mister Rogers have shaken off the scandal of being openly gay, and he now lives in Middlebury, Vermont, where he is known as Dr. Clemmons, former Artist in Residence at Middlebury College, professor in the music department, and director of a choir. He formally retired in 2013, but he still works with students, usually when they stop by his home for a chat, a bit of wisdom, or a song.
GayCities spoke with Clemmons about his life in the small town of Middlebury, and what he really thought when he met Fred Rogers for the first time.
When did you join the cast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?
I started in 1968 in the spring, as a matter of fact. I had a church job—I was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, and my church job was at First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. Fred Rogers was a part of that church, and came to a service when I had a solo. He came up to me after, and spoke to me very sincerely. He told me about he was very lonely as a child, and he created puppets to keep himself company, and then he told be about his show, and how he uses his puppets on his show. And then he invited me to come to the set. I thought it was queer, pun intended.
I thought it was queer for an adult male to be playing with puppets. Nobody did that where I was from. I grew up in the ghetto, in Birmingham, Alabama. People gambled in the streets, they got drunk, they got high. Nobody was playing with puppets.
What changed your mind?
Fred called me and asked, “How come you haven’t come by to see me?” He convinced me to come by the station and watch them film. So, I went, and the next thing I knew, he asked, “Would you like to come on the show and sing some spirituals like you did at church?” And sure enough, I went on and did four spirituals, and I got an invitiation to be part of the show. I wasn’t ready for all that. I was headed to New York for the Metropolitan Opera Studio in Lincoln Center. I had no idea what I was getting into.
But I was a graduate student at the time, and I needed to make money and pay some bills. So I said, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my career, I would do it. And that was the dumbest thing that I’ve ever said in my life. It made my career.
People who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood often remember the day that Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons soaked their feet in the kiddie pool together (clip above). But they didn’t understand the impact of that moment until they looked back on it as adults.
Many people make reference to us putting our feet in the baby pool together. There were municipal pools where white people did not want black people to be allowed in. I’ll never forget how angry and how helpless I felt. I looked upon Fred as a powerful white man, who belonged to the ruling class, and one day I just told him, I was getting it off of my chest, what white people do to black people sometimes. And that episode was Fred’s answer. He said, come to the studio, and let’s do this thing. It had a lot of meaning to a lot of people.
What is life like for you now?
Living in Middlebury, it is a very liberal community. You can walk everywhere and it’s safe. Everybody knows me in town. To be honest, there are a lot of married gay couples. I don’t feel there is any discrimination because I am black in Vermont. Or if you see 2 guys walking down the street with a stroller, it is accepted. There is a student group on Middlebury campus, and I go to every event. But this college campus still has students whose parents have rejected them for being gay. You don’t see it, and it’s not talked about.
So how do you help them?
A huge role I play at Middlebury is to be a resource for young students who can say, ‘I can finally come out,’ and want a way to express themselves. And they do it here because they couldn’t do it at home. That’s a very important thing here. And they are an important part of my life. I think of them as my cosmic children.
Do you go to the pride festival in Burlington?
I used to go to the festival in my younger years. It’s a joyous and exciting event.
What purpose do pride festivals serve? Besides just being a party.
As acceptance grows, the things that make people unique tend to fade into the woodwork. You can lose sight of the community if you don’t have the pride festivals. Everybody starts to look the same. So I think it’s good for people to identify themselves from time to time, and remind everybody, ‘I’m here.’