In Memoriam: Peggy Cooper Cafritz

GW alumna started the District’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts as a summer program on the Foggy Bottom Campus, was key to launching GW’s black student union and to fostering integration in Greek organizations.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz
GW alumna Peggy Cooper Cafritz at 2014 GW forum on women and philanthropy.
February 20, 2018

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, B.A. ’68, J.D. ’71, an arts and education advocate whose time as a student at the George Washington University was steeped in campus activism, died Sunday at a hospital in Washington, D.C.

Her son Zach Cafritz told The Washington Post Ms. Cooper Cafritz died from complications from pneumonia.

Ms. Cooper Cafritz came to GW from Alabama in 1964. Within days of her arrival, Ms. Cooper Cafritz was leading a successful fight on campus against discrimination policies by some sororities and fraternities. She was a founding member of the GW Black Peoples Union, which later became the GW Black Student Union. 

By the time she was a senior, she had begun forming a foundation for the Summer Workshop for Careers in the Arts, which eventually evolved in the mid-1970s into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Strong ties between Ellington and GW still exist.

“Peggy was single minded in her pursuit of making a high-quality arts and academic education accessible to high school students of the District of Columbia, particularly for those of limited means,” said Charles Barber, deputy general counsel at GW and president of Ellington’s Board of Directors.

“She was also a bridge builder, working with GW representatives as well as those from the Kennedy Center, to pull together in a unique partnership that supported her abiding passion, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts,” Mr. Barber said.

In a 2014 forum at GW, Ms. Cooper Cafritz recalled how the idea for what became Duke Ellington School of the Arts formed.

In the late 1960s, at the height of the modern civil rights movement, a group of GW students formed the Black Peoples Union. The group held a black cultural festival on campus. Ms. Cooper Cafritz, chaired the festival, and her aim was to have the event showcase black culture from all over D.C., not just at GW.

“The city had the riches and great talent,” she said at the forum.

As the 1968 Black Arts and Entertainment Festival was coming to an end, Ms. Cooper Cafritz and Mike Malone, a choreographer who was working on a master’s degree at Georgetown University, discussed how student participants showed so much talent but little polish.

“Mike said, ‘Well, why don’t you start a school?’” Ms. Cooper Cafritz said.

She wrote a proposal for an arts school that evening and shared it with her father, who urged her to start smaller because she was unlikely to get a positive reaction from such a plan. “Then he also said, ‘But if you say you want something small, and you know you want to one day build it into a school, I think that will work,’” she said.

She rewrote the proposal for a summer program at GW and got support from then-GW President Lloyd Elliott, who provided the program with campus space. He also told her that she would have to raise money for the program.

Eventually, funding came—including $30,000 from university benefactor Henry Strong, and the Summer Workshop for Careers in the Arts was born. The successful program called several spots home before settling into the former D.C. Public School’s Western High School in Northwest Washington. The school was named after Duke Ellington after his death and has become one of the leading arts high schools in the country.

Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and a member of Ellington’s board (along with Greg Squires, a GW sociology professor), said he first got to know Ms. Cooper Cafritz through his work with her at Duke Ellington.

“She was an opinionated, passionate, soulful and lively presence not just about the arts, but also about arts education and stewardship of the arts,” Mr. Sethi said, “and how the arts should be accessible to all.

“Peggy was a troublemaker, and I mean that in the best possible way,” Mr. Sethi said. “She did not accept the status quo. I’m really going to miss her.”

Ms. Cooper Cafritz was awarded an honorary degree from GW in 2011. And in 2017, GW Law honored Ms. Cooper Cafritz with the Belva Ann Lockwood Award for her outstanding civics work. She also had a role in politics in the District, serving six years as president of the D.C. Board of Education. She also was known for her philanthropy and was admired as the owner of one of the largest private collections of African American and African Art.

“Peggy was known for her support of African American artists, and a visit to her home was like a backdoor pass to a treasured museum,” Mr. Barber said. “She was not only a patron of the arts, however.  She was also one who believed in arts institutions and understood the work needed to sustain them.

“Peggy had a generous spirit who gave freely of her time and resources. She set an example in supporting both individuals and arts programs and challenged others to follow,” Mr. Barber said.


University News


Looking Back: GW Celebrates Ellington School Milestone

July 16, 2014
As the Duke Ellington School of the Arts turns 40, George Washington Today examines its early days as a campus arts program.

Women and Philanthropy Forum Highlights Giving, Community Involvement

May 12, 2014
Alumna and Duke Ellington School Co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz emphasizes local programs.