StoryCorps 462: In the Neighborhood
If you grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” some of the voices in this week’s podcast will bring back memories.
François Clemmons was singing in a Pittsburgh-area church when he first met Fred Rogers. Taken by his voice, Fred asked François to join the cast of his new television show as singing policeman Officer Clemmons. He would go on to play the role for 25 years, becoming the first African American actor to have a recurring part on a children’s TV show.
Initially, he was uneasy about taking on the role of Officer Clemmons, having personally had negative interactions with the police, and having witnessed the violence civil rights demonstrators had faced at the hands of law enforcement. But a scene from a 1969 episode of the show helped convince him that his role would have a positive impact on society.
During the show, Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to take a break from his work walking the beat and join him in a kiddie pool to cool his feet. As the scene concludes, in what is clearly a biblical gesture, Fred, who was also a Presbyterian minister, takes a towel and dries Officer Clemmons’ feet for him. Twenty-five years later, they reprised the scene during François’ final appearance on the show.
François and his friend, Karl Lindholm, came to StoryCorps to discuss how he became the friendly singing Officer Clemmons, and his relationship with the man known to children as Mister Rogers.
Fred Rogers’ friendship and kindness stood in contrast to other scenes involving swimming pools in the 1960s. Our second story is about an incident that took place at a segregated pool in June 1964 in Saint Augustine, Florida.
Black and white protesters staged a “wade in” at the “Whites Only” pool at a place called the Monson Motor Lodge. J.T. Johnson and Al Lingo were two of the protesters and they came to StoryCorps to remember how the owner of the motel tried to force them out of the pool by throwing acid into the water.
The producer of both of these stories is Jasmyn Belcher Morris, and Cailey Cron fact-checked the François Clemmons piece for StoryCorps. They both join the podcast this week to provide some history and context to the professional and personal relationship between François and Fred. Additionally, François had a Grammy Award-winning career as a singer and was an artist-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont where Cailey, a graduate of the school, came to know him as a man about campus.