Peggy Cooper Cafritz
grande dame of the Washington arts and education scene, dies at 70
Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a doyenne of Washington arts and education, who tried to mend many of the city’s social and racial wounds, created one of the nation’s leading arts-intensive high schools, and capped her civic involvement with a divisive six-year tenure as D.C. school board president, died Feb. 18 at a hospital in Washington. She was 70.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said her son Zach Cafritz. She had severe health problems in recent years, including back surgeries and a gallbladder operation that left her in a coma for more than a week.
Ms. Cooper Cafritz came from a prosperous black business family in Mobile, Ala., but the family’s standing in the community did not insulate them from indignities of the Jim Crow South. Galvanized by the civil rights movement, Ms. Cooper Cafritz arrived in Washington in 1964 to attend George Washington University, where she was determined to end the vestiges of racial segregation on campus.
By her senior year, she had organized a black student union and helped force many fraternities and sororities to adopt race-blind charters. She also co-created a pilot workshop in creative arts in summer 1968 that she fostered into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
The school, modeled on New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, was a breakthrough for D.C. students gifted in dance, painting, music and theater but ill-suited to traditional schools. Since Duke Ellington opened in 1974, generations of graduates, among them comedian Dave Chappelle and operatic mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, have gone on to noted careers.
Peggy Cooper Cafritz is known for championing contemporary and emerging African American artists. On April 4, 2017, she was inducted to the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Hall of Fame as a Patron of the Arts. Watch her talk about the role of NYFA in changing the trajectory of the careers of young artists.