Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Co-Founder of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Has Died

What to Know

  • Peggy Cooper Cafritz died Sunday at the age of 70.
  • Cooper Cafritz founded the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and was the president of the D.C. Board of Education.
  • Mayor Bowser praised Cooper Cafritz' "dogged determination to break down barriers" in a statement.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a champion of social and racial justice, arts and education who co-founded the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, has died at age 70.

She died Sunday morning in a local hospital from an infection, News4 has learned.

In a statement released after Cooper Cafritz’ death, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser credited the activist with helping thousands of young people through her arts and education efforts.

“Because of Peggy, we have the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. And because of Peggy, thousands of students have had, and will continue to have, the opportunity to grow and develop in an educational environment that supports their unique talents and aspirations. Her legacy will be felt by generations to come,” Bowser said.

Cooper Cafritz moved to D.C. from Mobile, Ala. in 1964 to attend George Washington University. She immediately started fighting injustices on campus, the university said, first by working to abolish racial segregation by fraternities and sororities. She won that fight, the university said in a 2017 profile.

Inspired by a 1964 showcase of young, black musicians from across the District, Cooper Cafritz started a summer program to hone talents of D.C.’s young people. That program grew into Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which opened in 1974.


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She attended the re-opening of the school in August 2017 after the building was remodelled. 

Cooper Cafritz earned a law degree in 1971 and worked in both media and public service.

She won Emmy and Peabody awards for her work on documentaries for WTOP-TV and Post-Newsweek Stations and art criticism on WETA’s “Around Town,” George Washington University said.

Cooper Cafritz served as president of the District of Columbia Board of Education, a publicly elected office, from 2001 to 2007. She stepped down to spend more time with her family, George Washington University said.

In the 1980s, she married wealthy real estate developer Conrad Cafritz. The couple later divorced.

Cooper Cafritz was an avid art collector who amassed a collection worth millions of dollars. When a fire burned down her Northwest, D.C. home in 2009, hundreds of works of art by African-American and African artists were destroyed.

She filed a lawsuit against D.C. Water after the agency admitted that they lacked the water pressure to properly extinguish the flames, News4 reported. The cause of the fire was never determined.

She recently wrote a book called "Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art," in which she discusses the lost works. The book is set to be released in March.

Cooper Cafritz raised two sons, a daughter, many teenage foster children and had many godchildren. In honor of her children, she annually gave three Duke Ellington School of the Arts students college scholarships, George Washington University said.

“We mourn the loss of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, one of Washington’s most inspiring and generous visionaries and activists,” mayor Bowser said. “Her belief in our young people and her dogged determination to break down barriers was matched by the extraordinary persistence and leadership needed to bring her vision to life.”

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