Peggy Cooper Cafritz, 70, a mover-and-shaker in Washington, D.C., for decades, died Feb. 18 at a local hospital. The cause was complications from pneumonia. She had undergone at least one earlier bout with the disease, along with an emergency gall bladder operation several years ago.
She and real estate heir and developer Conrad Cafritz divorced in 1998.
Born Pearl Alice Cooper on April 7, 1947, in Mobile, Alabama, she went to Catholic boarding school in Indiana and came to Washington in 1964 to attend George Washington University. There, she launched its black student union and successfully fought to integrate the school’s fraternities and sororities.
She earned a degree in political science and went on to law school, graduating in 1971. While she was in law school, her father, whose Alabama chain of funeral homes and life insurance businesses was struggling, committed suicide.
In 1968, she organized a summer arts festival attended by local teenagers that evolved into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which she cofounded with choreographer Mike Malone. Among the alumni of the public magnet school, which opened in 1974 in the former Western High School on 35th Street NW, are comedian Dave Chappelle and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.
Duke Ellington reopened last fall after a major renovation and expansion. Architect Chris Graae of Cox Graae + Spack commented on Cooper Cafritz’s ongoing involvement, down to the interior color scheme. “She was a very strong guide in this project,” he said.
Education and the arts were her consuming interests. Cooper Cafritz became the youngest-ever fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Committed to D.C., she helped to create the University of the District of Columbia and, beginning in 2000, served six years as an outspoken president of the board of education. She also chaired the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and worked at WTOP as a television producer and at WETA as an arts reviewer.
She and Conrad Cafritz stood out as a mixed-race couple actively involved in philanthropy. The couple raised a family and convened a high-powered salon in an eight-bedroom hilltop estate they built in the 1980s on Chain Bridge Road in the Kent neighborhood.
The house was filled with works by African and African American artists, including Kehinde Wiley, whose portrait of President Barack Obama was unveiled last week. But more than 300 artworks, worth millions of dollars, were lost in a fire in the summer of 2009, when Cooper Cafritz was in Martha’s Vineyard. She sued DC Water for $30 million for not maintaining the neighborhood’s fire hydrants; the case was finally settled in 2014.
Cooper Cafritz rebuilt her art collection (a catalogue is about to be published) and installed it in a duplex condominium on Massachusetts Avenue near Dupont Circle, purchased in 2011 for $3.25 million. The 5,400-square-foot, four-bedroom unit was listed last year for $5.5 million.
In “At Home with Peggy Cooper Cafritz,” a New York Times feature that appeared in January of 2015, New York-based designer Paul Siskin said: “She does everything in a big way. You see it in her art. Some of the people I deal with have beautiful apartments that, well, are bigger and more important than they are. Peggy is the opposite. Peggy is much bigger than any apartment.”
Cooper Cafritz is survived by her three children, Arcelie Reyes of Vermont and Zachary and Cooper Cafritz of Washington, D.C.; two brothers and a sister; and three grandchildren.