Fired Up

One Mobilian spent her life channeling anger into energy, ultimately triumphing over tragedy, using her passion for the arts to promote equality.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz in her Washington, D.C., home in 2015. Photo by April Greer For The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the leafy outskirts of Washington D.C., just after dark on a July day in 2009, a small fire broke out. Within no time, the front porch was ablaze, and the two-alarm fire soon went on to consume the entire eight-bedroom mansion, burning it to the ground. The owner thankfully wasn’t home, but inside, the furniture, clothing and valuables were all destroyed, along with personal photos and family keepsakes. If that weren’t enough, one of the country’s most important collections of African American and African art was turned to dust that day as more than 100 fire fighters worked to extinguish the blaze.

Valued at an unconfirmed $15 million, the collection contained works by household names such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden and also works by up-and-coming artists and those just beginning to be recognized by the mainstream art world. At the time of the fire, Oprah Magazine had just gone to press with a feature on the home and collection of art for their August 2009 issue. The magazine showcased page after page of exquisite décor, each room punctuated by striking contemporary art with pops of bold color, layers of texture and unexpected 3-dimensional forms. The white columned home was a veritable museum housing an enormous number of important works by artists of color. “Before the fire, only the African American community recognized me as a collector,” homeowner Peggy Cooper Cafritz said in an essay in her 2018 book, “Fired up, Ready to Go!” 

“My approach to collecting is so unorthodox. I’m not sure I wear the title of collector easily.” After the fire, however, and the subsequent Oprah article, Peggy began to get recognition from the broader art world as well as from museums and galleries that had overlooked some of the young artists she had been supporting for years.

How could I wallow in the sadness and self-pity that often corresponds with loss? It was art, and the beauty and comfort it brings, that compelled me forward.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz speaking about picking up the pieces after the tragic loss of her home and collection of art to a fire in 2009

Peggy said her first interactions with fine art were as a child in Mobile, sitting with her mother in their home on Delaware Street just south of Texas Street, flipping through coffee table books of the European masters. And again at dinner every night, gazing up at a large print of a painting by French Cubist George Braque that hung in the Coopers’ dining room. While she was drawn to the beauty of art immediately, it took her some time to realize that fine art as she knew it — and was taught — was solely based on the Western-European definition. Representation by people of color was absent in museums, galleries and art textbooks for most of her life, and so collecting art by Black artists was Peggy’s way to help undo this omission. Collecting art became more than just the search for beauty, it was a political act as well.

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A young Peggy Cooper and her older brother Billy at home in Mobile in the 1950s

A Blaze from Within

If you ask around town, very few Mobilians have ever heard of Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Despite her groundbreaking collection of art, the local art institutions did not know her name. Despite fighting for racial equality from adolescence to her death in 2018 at age 70, and finding much success in her endeavors, local civil rights historians did not know her name. Despite having been born to a prominent African American family in Mobile and attending the local Catholic schools, Peggy Cooper Cafritz is not well known to many Mobilians. That could perhaps stem from the fact that Peggy did not mince words about her upbringing in the segregated Mobile of the 1960s. She always spoke openly about being banned from white schools, enduring hateful pranks at summer camp, having to sit in the last pew during church services and pushing back against hypocrisy, and that kind of frankness about the mistakes of the past make a lot of Mobilians uneasy. “I felt hemmed in, and I was very conscious of being segregated. So, you know, I was always mad. But there are relationships that I’ll cherish forever, like my relationship to the fried oyster.” Peggy said she loved Mobile because it made her who she was. 

With her two older brothers enrolled at Notre Dame, fourth-child Peggy was sent to boarding school at St. Mary’s Academy in South Bend, Indiana, to escape the sting of segregation in the South during the 1960s. It was there that she began to make sense of her feelings about her upbringing and find some direction, she said in her 2018 book. “Mobile had politicized me. St. Mary’s was where I began to figure out what to do with this, and where my Sundays were redeemed.” Finally, when it was time to go to college, she bucked the family expectation of attending a Catholic college and settled instead on George Washington University in D.C. 

Dominique Cooper (left), close family friend and future Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Peggy Cooper Cafritz

The summer before her freshman year of college, however, Peggy got a firsthand taste of the dangers of advocacy for civil rights. It was the summer of 1964, right after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law The Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination. Peggy and her close family friend Alexis Herman (who grew up to become U.S. Secretary of Labor) decided to put it to the test. They made plans to dine at every restaurant in Mobile and see if they would be denied service. If they were, the pair intended to file an official compliant with the Justice Department. 

One evening, the girls pulled into a drive-in and ordered their food into the microphone, with no response. The girls then endured a harrowing experience as they were harassed and threatened by other diners, unable to safely get away for some time. “There was an Alabama State highway patrol car three spaces down. The policemen could see what was happening but never budged.”

Igniting Passion

In her first weeks on campus as a freshman at George Washington, Peggy was again pushing back against inequality. She drew crowds of media when she organized a picket of the segregated sororities and fraternities, which were funded in part by the full tuition that the Cooper family was paying. The work eventually led to foundational change in GW’s Greek system. “GW was the place I learned institution-building and the commitment to create a place for equity in our culture.” 

She founded the first Black Arts Festival in D.C. in 1968, while in her first year of law school. The poster for the festival was designed by Sam Gilliam and Lloyd McNeill and printed by Lou Stovall, all three of whom would go on to have illustrious careers in the arts. Peggy arranged for well-known black professionals to come to the festival, to “engage with the kids and expose them to the broad range of careers available to them if they worked hard.” By the end of the event, she had resolved to start a school for the performing arts. More than 50 years after her grandmother, Alice Cooper, founded the first private school for Black children in Mobile, and six years after the first Black Arts Festival, she had achieved her goal. The years of hard work, fundraising and coalition building paid off when the Duke Ellington School of the Arts opened its doors in 1974, cementing a lasting legacy for a young woman determined to spread fairness and equality wherever she went.

History has taught me that one voice can foment change, and while I have tried throughout my life to raise my voice and to demand to be heard on a variety of fronts, including in the fields of art, I think that when all is said and done, art has given me the strength to continue to work for our presence and permanence everywhere.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz

Peggy was not the only Cooper to excel, however. “My mother met and married my dad at (HBCU) Hampton University, a union that produced Gary, Billy, Jay, myself, Dominique, and Mario. Among them, three lawyers, a three-star Marine Corps general and ambassador, a mayor, a teacher and muse, a manger of president Clinton’s 1992 convention, and a school founder, just like my grandmother,” she said in her book. Their father and mother’s commitment to excellence — to literature and art, education and community, faith and equality — made a lasting impression on the Cooper children that endures. And while many of the family still live in the Mobile area, making a difference in their own ways, Peggy chose to live out her life in Washington and left her mark on its citizens as a school board president, art collector, and saloniste, welcoming young artists of color into her home in much the same way Gertrude Stein mentored young impressionists in Paris in the early 20th century. “If I can help gifted young artists in any way,” she said, “I will go out of my way to do so. Their permanence is now what I seek.”

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., dedicated to arts education and founded by Mobilian Peggy Cooper Cafritz, is operated as a joint partnership between D.C. Public Schools, the Kennedy Center and George Washington University. The building formerly housed Western High School and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lasting Spark

Peggy’s story is one of grace, determination, plenty of grit — and triumph. She became co-chair of the Smithsonian’s Cultural Equity Committee. She was the youngest trustee ever appointed to the American Film Institute and was on the Acquisitions Committee at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She produced documentary television that earned her both Emmy and Peabody awards. And in her spare time she was a lawyer.

Just a few short years after the fire, she began collecting again to support new emerging artists of color and to fill the walls of a new apartment in D.C. “That, for me, is the greatest contribution I can make,” she explained in 2018. By supporting these artists — the fledgling and the famous — Peggy hoped to accomplish three simple but powerful things. “Beauty. Permanence. Inclusion.”

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