A Force of Change

From the Archives
June 24, 2014

When Peggy Cooper Cafritz, BA ’68, JD ’71, arrived at the university 50 years ago this fall, in 1964, she almost immediately set to work pushing against old obstacles and laying the groundwork for the future: Just days into her freshman year, the Mobile, Ala. native was leading the fight on campus against racial discrimination by sororities.

Ms. Cafritz—an Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentarian and an advocate for the arts and education, including as a former president of the D.C. Board of Education—was among a small group of African Americans attending GW at the height of the civil rights movement. “There were very few of us,” she recalled at GW’s 2011 Commencement, where she was awarded an honorary degree, “and it could be a lonely existence.”

Though the fight against discrimination would last well into until her senior year, Ms. Cafritz’s passion for activism never waned at GW. She helped found the Black Student Union and advocated for the engagement of inner-city children in the arts as a way of transcending their socioeconomic situations.

To that end, she organized a Black Arts and Entertainment Festival on campus in 1968. And that summer Ms. Cafritz and the late dancer and choreographer Mike Malone launched a grant-funded Summer Workshop for Careers in the Arts. The program, which had the support of then-President Lloyd Elliott and was held in GW buildings, provided arts training for dozens of students, black and white. It was such a success that, in 1974, it blossomed into a D.C. high school: the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, which has a lasting relationship with the university.

Ms. Cafritz, speaking to graduates in 2011, said that she arrived “as a very angry, young black woman” amid tumultuous times locally and nationally. But, she said: “I left George Washington as a woman who had transformed from black to African American, I am sure, and I was not so angry anymore, because I saw how my energies could be directed, through institutional help, to create and change and give opportunities to others.”

— Bergis Jules