Washingtonians are mourning the loss of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a prominent philanthropist, art collector, activist, and arts education figure who helped found the famed high school, Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Cafritz, 70, died Feb. 18 at a local hospital. The Washington Post reported that she died after suffering complications from pneumonia.
Peggy Cooper Cafritz, activist, educator, art collector, and founder of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, died Feb. 18.
In 1974, Cafritz helped found the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the only performing arts high school in the city that focuses on professional arts training and academic enrichment. The school serves as an incubator for college and careers in the arts and attracts students from all over the city who are gifted in the arts. Notable graduates include comedian Dave Chappelle and opera singer Denyce Graves.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called Cafritz one of the city’s most inspiring and generous visionaries and activists. “Her belief in our young people and her dogged determination to break down barriers was matched by the extraordinary persistence and leadership needed to bring her vision to life,” Bowser said in a written statement. “Because of Peggy, we have the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. And because of Peggy, thousands of students have had, and will continue to have, the opportunity to grow and develop in an educational environment that supports their unique talents and aspirations. Her legacy will be felt by generations to come.”
Cafritz took a hands-on approach at the school and gave her personal cell phone number to students, said Jalen Coleman, an Ellington graduate now attending Julliard.
He remembers Cafritz as a mentor and a friend. When his family fell on hard times, Cafritz gave him money to pay hospital bills, buy supplies and other necessities, Coleman said. Another time, he was battling the flu and Cafritz invited him to her house because his mother was out of town.
“She made sure I was fed, had medicine and rested for three days until I recovered,” Coleman recalled. “That’s who she was. Sometimes she would have multiple kids over at a time to help our individual situations. She loved to help.”
Cafritz was born Pearl Alice Cooper on April 7, 1947 in Mobile, Ala. to a prominent Catholic family, and later changed her name to Peggy, according to USA Today. She attended George Washington University, earning an undergraduate degree in political science and later, a law degree.
She got acquainted with the Washington arts and education scene while attending law school and co-created a summer arts workshop for low-income children in 1968. That program eventually became Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which D.C. Public Schools accepted in 1974, giving local students a path to pursue an education and career in the arts.
Cafritz remained active in D.C.’s education circles. She took various positions at the school and served on the Ellington Fund, the school’s fundraising arm. From 1972 to 1976, she was on the executive committee of the D.C. Board of Higher Education that implemented a merger between the Federal City College and Washington Teachers College, which formed the University of the District of Columbia. She became president of the D.C. Board of Education in 2000 and stepped down after a rocky six years.
Cafritz’s mansion resembled a museum, thanks to her massive collection of African and African-American art, one of the largest private collections of such work. A 2009 fire destroyed more than 300 pieces of her collection, including pieces by Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, according to the Washington Post.
Her public service continued as chairwoman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities from 1979 to 1987. In 1993, President Bill Clinton tapped her to serve as vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Her social circle included Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Quincy Jones, Vernon Jordan, and Alma Powell, wife of retired Gen. Colin Powell, according to the Post.
Cafritz embarked on a career in broadcast, working as a programming executive for Post-Newsweek and a documentary producer for WTOP-TV from 1974 to 1977, winning an Emmy and Peabody Awards for her pieces. She won another Emmy as an arts reviewer for WETA-TV.
She is survived by her children Zach Cafritz and Cooper Cafritz of Washington, and Arcelie Reyes of Newark, Vt.; a sister, Dominique Cooper of Silver Spring, Md.; two brothers, A.J. Cooper of Fairhope, Ala., and Jerome G. Cooper, former assistant secretary of the Air Force and ambassador to Jamaica, of Mobile; and three grandchildren.