By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO

Students, faculty and alumni at Duke Ellington School of the Arts performed a collection of show-stopping numbers April 7 in honor of deceased co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz.

“Because You Were …We Are” celebrated Cooper Cafritz with an uplifting and emotional program of song, dance, speeches and music on what would have been her 71st birthday. The philanthropist, activist and matriarch of the city’s art scene died Feb. 18 after suffering complications from pneumonia.

Drummers kickoff the celebration of life for Duke Ellington School of the Arts Co-Founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz. (Photo by Lenore T. Adkins)

“It’s hard to believe that we’re here doing this so soon,” said former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who was 10 when she met Cafritz.

“Peggy’s vitality, her withering wit, her indomitable spirit, her incomparable resilience, even when she was suffering, defied the laws of nature for so long. I think we always half expected she would always beat the odds,” Rice said.

Cafritz was born Pearl Alice Cooper on April 7, 1947 in Mobile, Ala. to a prominent Catholic family. She moved to D.C. in the 1960s to attend George Washington University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in political science and later, a law degree.

She was introduced to the Washington arts and education scene while she was attending law school and co-created a summer arts workshop with the late Mike Malone for low-income children in 1968. That program evolved into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which the D.C. public schools accepted in 1974, giving local students a path to pursue their education and a career in the arts. Today, Ellington, affectionately called “The House that Peggy and Mike Built,” is one of the most prestigious performing arts high schools in the country.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lauded her as the greatest champion of the arts and children that the city has ever known.

The multimedia tribute drew nearly 900 people to the school. Some of the many notable guests included former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., former D.C. mayors Vincent Gray and Anthony Williams and comedian Dave Chappelle, a 1991 Ellington graduate. Famed choreographer Debbie Allen appeared in an emotional video tribute to Cafritz.

“She knocked down barriers, built bridges, brought people together, raised money, raised consciousness,” Allen said in the video. “And maybe she may have left the building, but she will never leave our hearts.”

In the wake of Cafritz’s death, the school’s chief executive officer Tia Powell Harris is focusing on securing millions of dollars for three of “Peggy’s projects” — things she was working on that she didn’t get to complete. They involve buying new pianos, obtaining specialized walls for professional exhibition space and launching a literacy initiative for Black girls to address their place in the world.

The school will also focus on creating a blueprint of its practices and curriculum for interested schools across the country to mirror.

“I think she would approve of both,” Harris told the AFRO. “I think she would expect that we create our niche in the nation along with pursuing locally what she set up for us to do.”

One of the tools they’ll use to achieve those goals is money from the new Founders Fund, which honors the legacy of  the school’s co-founders Cafritz and Malone.