Peggy Cooper Cafritz: A Life in Arts and Education

Washington, D.C., is a city of some who — with ambition and originality — are champions of both beauty and justice. When we lose such champions, the loss is felt sharply and deeply. After all, there are none too many and never enough.

The city has lost a major figure in the areas of beauty and justice, in the field of taste, in the appreciation of the need to use art to battle for civil rights and to create paths for others to do the same.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz was that figure. She died Feb. 18 at the age of 70 from complications from pneumonia. When you learned the news, it was an immediately felt loss, a whack against the ribs, because for many reasons she was a rare spirit.

She was a fighter first — a member of a well-to-do, socially prominent black family from Mobile, Alabama. Despite their position, she and her family were not spared the slings of the Jim Crow mentality. At George Washington University, she was a spark in the civil rights movement, organizing students against segregation.

She was often referred to as a “doyenne,” “a grande dame,” a woman with distinctive tastes, her own style and a distinct look. She found ways for her interests to intersect, notably as head of the D.C. school board and earlier, perhaps most important of all, as cofounder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Cooper Cafritz married, divorced and became her own kind of socialite, moving in an eclectic orbit as a major collector of African American and African Art and as a hugely effective cultural and political fundraiser.

When contemplating influential figures, people often look for hidden signs. Not so with Cooper Cafritz. You don’t have to look far. Simply behold the Duke Ellington School, now in its reconstructed brilliance, cutting-edge architecture incubating artistic creation of every type. One is surrounded by the joy of young people challenging themselves and their classmates. Mirabile visu!

Cooper Cafritz leaves our city this unique legacy. It is her artistic valedictory, one we shall always remember and for us to continue.


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