The Art of Law

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, JD '71, has inspired thousands with her decades of work in the arts and education.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz
March 01, 2017

During Women's History Month in March, we celebrate the successes and contributions of women to historical and contemporary society. This Women's History Month, we honor a remarkable alumna, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, JD'71, for her long and successful career in the arts and education that began at the George Washington University. Read more about Ms. Cafritz below.

Within weeks of arriving at GW as an undergrad, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, JD ’71, was already pushing against established obstacles, beginning with a fight against racial discrimination by fraternities and sororities—a fight she ultimately would win. At the height of the civil rights movement, Ms. Cooper Cafritz, a passionate senior about to begin her first year of law school, lead the newly-created Black Peoples Union at GW to hold the first black cultural festival on campus.

The 1968 Black Arts and Entertainment Festival brought in young musicians and performers from all over the city. Ms. Cooper Cafritz ensured the program would showcase black culture from all over the city, not just from GW. "The city had the riches and great talent, but [the kids] lacked polish," she said. This inaugural festival inspired Ms. Cooper Cafritz to pour her talents into her next big idea: creating a school for students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to develop artistic skills.

While still in law school, she and co-founder Mike Malone, a choreographer who was working on a master's degree at Georgetown University, launched the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which has since become a premiere arts high school in the country.

"Mike and I wanted the school to serve the least among us," Ms. Cooper Cafritz said. "We thought the kids without money would vest the kids who were more affluent with empathy, and we thought the kids who were more affluent would vest the kids without money with aspiration."

Ms. Cooper Cafritz has grown the school for over four decades and currently participates in its non-profit fundraising affiliate, the Ellington Fund, and on the executive committee of the governing board of the school.

Following law school, she was the youngest person ever selected as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and received the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Award, given annually to "one young person in the world, for an outstanding contribution toward the well-being of mankind." Ms. Cooper Cafritz went on to work as a programming executive and documentary producer for Post-Newsweek Stations and WTOP-TV, earning both Emmy and Peabody Awards for her documentary work. She also served as Executive Director of the Minority Cultural Project to develop a dramatic literary series for the Public Broadcasting Corporation. Beginning in 1986, Ms. Cooper Cafritz appeared as an arts critic for fourteen years on WETA-TV’s "Around Town," for which she also received an Emmy Award.

Ms. Cooper Cafritz has an extensive public service background in both education and the arts, serving on the Executive Committee of the D.C. Board of Higher Education, UDC'S Board of Trustees, the D.C Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Pratt Institute's Board of Trustees, the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship Board of Trustees, the Whitney Museum Painting and Sculpture Committee, and President Clinton's Committee in the Arts and Humanities. She was also co-chair of the Smithsonian Institution's Cultural Equity Committee, which encouraged the effort to bring greater racial and cultural diversity to the Smithsonian's professional ranks, exhibitions, and educational programs. Her time there spurred the development of the National Museum of the American Indian and the recently-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In January 2001, she took office as the first citywide publicly-elected president of the District of Columbia Board of Education. After being overwhelmingly elected to two consecutive terms, she decided not to run again when her second term ended in 2007 in order to spend more time with her youngest child.

As an avid collector of art since her time at GW Law, Ms. Cooper Cafritz has helped many young artists and has lobbied numerous institutions, including organizing Congressional hearings to urge all Federal arts agencies to give minority artists more equitable consideration. She is particularly pleased to have witnessed the new inclusion of artists of color by major art galleries. After a fire destroyed her home and carefully-curated collection in 2009, she dedicated herself to collecting art from emerging African-American artists and building a new collection.

Ms. Cooper Cafritz has two sons and a daughter. Each year she gives college scholarships to three Duke Ellington School of the Arts students in honor of her children. Over the years, she has raised many teenaged foster children and has countless godchildren.

For over 20 years, GW Law has celebrated and honored GW Law alumnae at the Belva Lockwood Luncheon. Belva Lockwood, an alumna of the law school and women's rights activist, was one of the first female attorneys in the United States, the first woman to practice before the Supreme Court and the first woman to run for President of the United States. This year's Award and Luncheon will be held on March 22 in Washington, D.C. and will celebrate the contributions of Peggy Cooper Cafritz.

Learn more about this year's event