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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.

Over five decades, Ms. Cooper Cafritz became a fixture of Washington’s educational, cultural and charitable firmament, as much a socialite as a social activist as she married into and bitterly divorced out of the Cafritz real estate and philanthropic fortune. Her social orbit included Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Quincy Jones, Vernon Jordan and Alma Powell, the wife of retired Gen. Colin L. Powell.

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She amassed one of the largest private collections of African American and African art, much of which was destroyed in 2009 by a fire at her hilltop mansion on Washington’s tony Chain Bridge Road NW. Her estate became a salon where, with formal charm and brusque efficiency, she linked the policymakers, cultural leaders and real estate developers of official and unofficial Washington.

She was a constant presence on the political fundraising circuit, and as an arts reviewer on “Around Town,” a program on the Washington public TV station WETA. She also was chairman emeritus of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and a board member of arts institutions such as the Kennedy Center.

She said her overarching mission was “to bridge the great divides” among the city’s factions in arts and politics. “The majority of power in this city is black, and the majority of money is white,” she told The Washington Post in 1979. “We’ve got to bring the two together. At some point in this society, everything has to converge.”

She took a personal step in that direction in 1981, when she married her longtime companion, Conrad Cafritz, a scion of one of Washington’s wealthiest families. “I met him on the telephone,” she once recalled to The Post. “He called me to ask me for a reference for somebody. I said, ‘That person is an [expletive].’ He said, ‘That’s an interesting response. Can we meet?’ ”

During their long courtship, they cut a striking profile as one of the few mixed-race couples in the city’s elite. But the marriage rapidly grew troubled. Her lawyers claimed in divorce proceedings in the late 1990s that Conrad Cafritz “referred to their relationship as a ‘European style’ marriage, with each being free to have sexual relations with others as they desire, despite Mrs. Cafritz’s wishes to the contrary.” In his court filings, according to The Post, Conrad Cafritz disputed many of the allegations.

After reaching a settlement, Ms. Cooper Cafritz retained the home, with its tennis and basketball courts and pool, as well as a secretary, cook, housekeeper and driver. The Post, citing a source familiar with her finances, wrote in 2002 that she received about $600,000 annually in child support, alimony and investment income.

In the wake of her divorce, Ms. Cooper Cafritz devoted her energies to pursuing elective office. In 2000, she vied successfully for the D.C. school board presidency, positioning herself as a revolutionary outsider. She was elected just as the federally appointed D.C. financial control board was returning control of the troubled school system to the school board.

The school board was long a battleground, but many education officials told The Post that it became less effective and more polarized during Ms. Cooper Cafritz’s time as president.

With a penchant for closed-door decision-making, she was perceived as aloof and authoritarian. She was unfiltered in her public remarks, decrying unqualified and incompetent teachers plaguing the school system.

She also drew a link between feckless parenting and children with special needs. “The reason we have so many special education students,” she once said, “is you have children who have no father, and they go home to a mother who’s on the couch eating potato chips and she pays no attention to the child, and he comes back to school and he wants attention, so he acts out.”

She provoked bewilderment by taking strong positions for and against school vouchers, which enable parents to use public money to send their children to private or parochial schools. Once, she claimed that a hacker penned an anti-voucher essay that appeared under her name, on her own website, before ultimately confessing that she had helped write it.

To supporters, she was a dogged champion of accountability in an unwieldy bureaucracy that no one person could fix. To her detractors, she was a bully.

She and members of the D.C. Council sniped at each other in meetings over matters petty and large, and she gradually lost the backing of then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). By the time she declined to run for reelection, she was credited with doing little to advance the 55,000-student system, although she reached for her own checkbook to replenish school library shelves.

As her tenure drew to an end, she personally took out a $40,000, full-page advertisement in The Post that trumpeted her service, noting an uptick in students going to college.

“There are a lot of people who I can make scream when they hear my name,” she told the newspaper in 2006. “I think a lot of people can’t stand the fact that I’m a rich lady on the hill. They think I couldn’t possibly give a damn about the kids. They also don’t appreciate the fact that I say what I think.”

Longtime political commentator Mark Plotkin called Ms. Cooper Cafritz “a controversial, provocative figure” in a city that does not embrace bureaucratic mavericks.

“She had many detractors,” he said, “but what cannot be taken away from her is the singular achievement of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She was not a consensus builder or namby-pamby if she wanted to accomplish something.”

Nurturing young artists

Pearl Alice Cooper, who later officially changed her name to Peggy, was born in Mobile on April 7, 1947.

Her parents owned a mortuary and life insurance business. When one of her older brothers was denied a place in an all-white Catholic high school, her parents decreed that their six children would be educated out of state at private schools. The financial strain eventually was a cause of her father’s suicide, the family told reporters.

“My father often said to me that he wanted me to be as comfortable sitting in a melon patch as I would be in an audience with the Queen of England,” Ms. Cooper Cafritz once told The Post, “as comfortable reading Aquinas as I would be reading W.E.B. Du Bois. You are supposed to be wherever you are, he said. I never felt any fear about where I belonged.”

After graduating in 1964 from St. Mary’s, a predominantly white Catholic boarding school in South Bend, Ind., Ms. Cooper Cafritz returned home and, along with friends, organized an effort to test the newly passed civil rights law outlawing racial discrimination in public facilities. She recalled being spat on by white youths at a drive-in.

That fall, she entered GWU as one of the few blacks on campus, drawing media attention with her efforts to challenge de facto segregation. She rushed various sororities. That she “didn’t measure up Hellenistically,” as The Post wryly expressed it at the time, came as no shock to her. As a founder of the Black Students Union, she pushed the student government and administration to demand that Greek organizations on campus prohibit discrimination or shutter. The measure passed in 1968.

Although she graduated in 1968 and received her law degree in 1971, she said she had no intention of practicing law. The “Esq.” after her name, she said, would “increase my credibility and open a lot of doors.”

The origins of Duke Ellington reached back to 1968, when she staged a black arts festival and arranged for inner-city youths to be bused to campus to see exhibitions of black dance, art, music, literature and clothing. Meeting teenagers who were “talented but very raw” impelled her and a friend — director and choreographer Mike Malone — to create a summer arts workshop for high-schoolers. Ms. Cooper Cafritz saw creative promise in the most troubled of the lot.

“Why does a kid get kicked out of school?” she once asked a Post interviewer rhetorically. “Because he’s in trouble. And if you think about it, he’s had to design the architecture of the trouble. Wow — he must really have something on the ball.”

Over the next several years, she almost single-handedly collected millions of dollars to help the program evolve into the Duke Ellington school, housed at the site of the former Western High School in Georgetown. She spoke of the Ellington school as a vital social juncture, commingling students of all races and economic backgrounds bound by a common devotion to the arts. The school, now highly competitive, underwent a major renovation that was completed in 2017 with $100 million in cost overruns.

In the 1970s, amid her rising profile in the community, Ms. Cooper Cafritz became the youngest fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served on a committee that created the University of the District of Columbia from two other academic institutions.

She was a programming executive and documentary producer for WTOP-TV in Washington and an assistant to the president of Post-Newsweek Stations Inc. She also worked briefly with entertainer Harry Belafonte and M. Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition, in an unsuccessful attempt to launch a “minority cultural project” for public television.

In addition to raising three children, Ms. Cooper Cafritz became guardian and godmother to dozens of youngsters over the decades, often paying for their educations.

Survivors include her children, Arcelie Reyes of Newark, Vt., and Zach Cafritz and Cooper Cafritz, both of Washington; two brothers, A.J. Cooper of Fairhope, Ala., and Jerome G. Cooper, a former assistant secretary of the Air Force and ambassador to Jamaica, of Mobile; a sister, Dominique Cooper of Silver Spring, Md.; and three grandchildren.

A devastating fire

Artist Nekisha Durrett once described Ms. Cooper Cafritz’s home as the “Hermitage of African American art,” referring to the world-renowned museum in St. Petersburg. The owner was staying with friends in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., when a fire one night in July 2009 rapidly engulfed the property and destroyed more than 300 pieces of art, including works by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden.

City and federal investigators ruled the blaze accidental, attributing it to linseed-oil-soaked paper towels left in a plastic trash bag on her porch. Firefighters said inadequate water pressure from nearby hydrants stymied their efforts.

Ms. Cooper Cafritz spent years suing the city’s water authority, citing what she alleged was its failure to maintain neighborhood fire hydrants, and settled for an undisclosed amount in 2014.

In 2011, she moved into a $3.25 million, 5,400-foot Dupont Circle condo that she had completely rebuilt to showcase what remained of the art trove that she set about rebuilding. A book about her collection, written by Ms. Cooper Cafritz with contributions from artists including MacArthur “genius” award winner Kerry James Marshall, is scheduled to be published Tuesday.

Ms. Cooper Cafritz’s expanded collection featured a Marshall drawing of an imposing woman.

“The woman is a powerful image,” she told The Post. “It’s an innate power as opposed to a position of power, and it’s something I think all women have the right to possess.”

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