Mobile native Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1948-2018) was a noted art collector, philanthropist, socialite, and minority-rights advocate for decades in Washington D.C. In 1974, she helped found the renowned Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which counts among its graduates comedian Dave Chappelle, opera star Denyce Graves, and musician Meshell Ndegeocello. Cafritz was a fixture in the Washington-area political, social, and arts scene and was labeled the grand dame of the arts and education scene by the Washington Post and called an “icon” by the Washington Business Journal.
Cafritz was born Pearl Alice Cooper in Mobile, Mobile County, on April 7, 1947, to Algernon Johnson Cooper Sr. and Gladys Mouton Cooper; she had five siblings. Known from an early age as “Peggy,” she later legally changed her name. The family was wealthy and well known in Mobile. Her grandmother reportedly opened the first school for African Americans in the city. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Mobile native Alexis Herman was a distant cousin and childhood companion. Cooper’s father ran a prosperous insurance and mortuary business. Denied an education at the all-white Catholic schools in Mobile like her siblings, Cafritz attended high school at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana. She joined the Urban League there, and graduated in 1964. After graduation, she returned home to Mobile, where she again experienced acts of racism and segregation. The family later became impoverished from sending the children out of state to private boarding schools. Elder brother Jerome G. Cooper served in the Alabama House of Representatives and as commissioner of the State Department of Human Resources and later became Assistant Secretary of the Air Force and U.S. ambassador to Jamaica. He was a prominent member of Mobile’s business sector, working for engineering firm David Volkert and Associates and in the insurance business. Her brother Algernon J. Cooper was the first black mayor of Prichard, Mobile County, and her younger brother Mario Cooper was a noted Democratic political operative and AIDS activist.
In the fall of 1964, Cooper entered George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C., to pursue her interest in politics. Though the city was largely African American at the time, Cafritz was one of the few African American students at the school and worked to end discrimination there. She founded the Black Students Union and helped to found the GW Black Peoples Union. She urged the student government and administration to prohibit discrimination in sororities and fraternities, a policy that was later formalized. While at GWU, Cooper raised funding for and started a summer arts program for low income children with other members of the Black Peoples Union. She graduated in 1968 with a degree in political science and earned a law degree from GWU in 1971. She was selected as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the youngest at the time.
Rather than practice law, Chafitz turned her attention to arts and education in the city. With the help of choreographer and director Mike Malone, she established the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1974 as an outgrowth of the summer arts program. It found a home in the former Western High School located just south of the U.S. vice president’s residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory and was named for the famed band leader and Washington native. The high school later became part of the District of Columbia school system and is known for its dual curriculum, mixing academics with professional arts training, including dance, instrumental music, theater, vocal studies and more. It is the only such school in the city. The building, constructed in 1898, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Also in the 1970s, Cafritz produced documentaries for local television station WTOP and was an arts reviewer for public broadcasting station WETA, which earned her an Emmy Award. She won another Emmy and a Peabody Award as a programming executive for Post-Newsweek Stations (present-day Graham Media Group) for her documentary work on employment discrimination at the Washington Post.
In 1981, Cooper married Conrad Cafritz, a wealthy and well-connected white real estate developer and arts patron. His father, Morris, had developed a number of significant apartment and office buildings and residential areas in the city and nearby Maryland suburbs. Cafritz’s parents established the locally renowned Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation in 1948. Peggy and Conrad would have three children and divorce in 1998. The divorce was covered extensively in the local media and left her wealthy and in possession of the couple’s custom-built mansion on Chain Bridge Road in an exclusive area of the city.
A July 2009 fire destroyed Cafritz’s home and the vast majority of her extensive art collection, save for some sculptures and a few other pieces. Much of the African and African American artwork, some of it considered politically and racially provocative, had been collected over many years from then unknown artists. It was considered one of the largest collections of its kind in the country and was reportedly underinsured but considered to be worth many millions of dollars. The collection was featured that August in O Magazine. Cafritz would rebuild her collection after moving to a condominium in the Dupont Circle area.
Keenly interested in providing educational opportunities for minorities, Cafritz mentored many young people and was known for providing financial assistance to underprivileged and troubled youth seeking an education. More formally, she worked on the city’s Board of Higher Education in the 1970s when the University of the District of Columbia was formed from two other schools. She was elected president of the city’s Board of Education in the 2000s, serving six years, but drew criticism for mixed messages on school vouchers, holding closed-door meetings, ignoring the schools’ finances, and being generally considered too outspoken in her remarks about unqualified teachers and poor parenting. In the arts world, Cafritz chaired the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities from 1979 until 1987 and was appointed vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities by Pres. Bill Clinton in 1993. She was a board member of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and also chaired a Smithsonian Institution advisory committee from the 1980s into the 1990s. She later served on an advisory panel for the National Museum on African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016. She was president of art sales at PC Cafritz Associates, a business consulting firm. Cafritz served on the Ellington School board of directors until her death and was active in fundraising endeavors that hosted foreign dignitaries and attracted some of the most famous names in music and the arts. Cafritz in turn raised funds for other causes and donated to black artists, including Spike Lee.
Cafritz died from complications resulting from pneumonia on February 18, 2018, in Washington D.C. She had been suffering from other maladies as well, stemming from earlier surgeries and a gall bladder operation that left her in a coma for more than a week. Just days after her death, her book Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz was published. It received positive reviews in the Washington Post and other publications. The book features some 200 works that were lost in the fire and others collected after the event.
Cafritz was a major presence in the Washington, D.C., area social scene. She had, over the years, hosted many functions, parties, and fundraisers for a variety of humanitarian and liberal causes and Democratic politicians, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Pres. Barack Obama, and Pres. Bill Clinton. Her social circle consisted of local and national celebrities from the humanities and politics and was largely liberal, but also bipartisan, including Alma Powell, wife of former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, and Anna Perez, the former press secretary for First Lady Barbara Bush. Cafritz was a longtime friend of Susan Rice, former Ambassador to the United Nations and National Security Advisor during the Obama Administration. She was godmother to the son of the late Marion Barry, the city’s longest-serving mayor and first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.