Art does not succeed in time by being more personal, different, or even original than any other. It succeeds by remaining intact, and…containing within its form ideas and associations, which can continue to stimulate people who view it. — Artist’s statement (1967), Richard Hunt
Peggy Cooper Cafritz was born on April 7, 1947, in Mobile, Alabama, to the well known and respected Cooper family. Her upbringing was decidedly Catholic. Her father, a well respected community leader, and her mother, an astounding beauty, worked to provide the correct upbringing for Peggy and her siblings. After graduating from a private Catholic high school, Cafritz attended George Washington University, where in 1968, she earned an undergraduate degree in political science and in 1971, a law degree.
Cafritz became involved with education and the arts in the Washington, D.C., area when, as a law student, she founded the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Initially a summer arts workshop for minority children, the program was accepted into the D.C. public school system in 1974. For the rest of her life, she continued to serve the school and its non-profit fund-raising affiliate, the Ellington Fund, in numerous positions. Cafritz served on the Executive Committee of the D.C. Board of Higher Education from 1972-1976, which implemented the merger of Federal City College and Washington Teachers College into the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). From 1979-1987, she chaired the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and in 1993 President Bill Clinton appointed her to serve as Vice Chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Cafritz was the youngest person ever selected to serve as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. She worked as a programming executive for Post-Newsweek and a documentary producer for WTOP-TV from 1974-77, earning both Emmy and Peabody Awards for her documentary work. Her work as an arts reviewer on WETA-TV’s “Around Town” also earned her an Emmy Award. Cafritz worked to develop a dramatic literary series for the Community for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Corporation from 1977-79 as Executive Director of the Minority Cultural Project, a joint venture between Harry Belafonte and WQED/Pittsburgh.
In November 2000, on a platform stressing the importance of academics, athletics, and the arts, Cafritz ran for President of the D.C. Board of Education and won. Her cousin was former Secretary of Labor, Alexis M. Herman.
In 2009 a house fire destroyed her home in DC’s Kent neighborhood, ravaging the eight-bedroom architectural landmark where she held salons and kept her art collection, one of the largest private collections of African American and African art. Among those 300 works destroyed in the fire were works by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. She reached a settlement with the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority over the fire for their inadequate pressure in the hydrants.
Cafritz moved to Dupont Circle in 2001 and continued to grow her collection. Included in the Cafritz collection is Carrie Mae Weems, El Anatsui, Chris Ofili, Mickalene Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Simone Leigh, Titus Kaphar, LaToya Ruby Frazier, William Villalongo, Tschabalala Self, Nathaniel Mary Quinn and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose work is featured on the cover of a 2018 book about Cafritz’s collection.
Cafritz passed away on February 18, 2018 at age 70.
Artistic Tribute by the New York Times: At Home with Peggy Cooper Cafritz
View Obituary Listing, Published by Matthew Gilmore on Monday, February 19, 2018
Works and publications
Cafritz, Peggy Cooper (2018). Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity. The African American Art Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz. New York: Rizzoli International Publications. ISBN 978-0-847-86058-6. OCLC 1021038973.
Research compiled for this biography is courtesy of The History Makers and WikiZAero.