In April 2007 artist Ann van de Graaf purchased the property at 2238 Garfield Avenue from the Virginia University of Lynchburg. The house was in very poor shape and the back yard was overgrown with trees. This did not deter master craftsman Tommy Hanks and his wife, Shirley. They were both working on the Virginia University of Lynchburg’s historic buildings, saving them for future generations. Together they took on the task of transforming the house into a professional gallery, complete with track lighting and a flexible picture hanging system. Upstairs, a bedroom was equipped with skylights and converted into a studio. New fixtures were installed in the bathroom, and a small study and private sitting room incorporated. The kitchen was gutted and new cabinets sink and appliances added.
Also in 2007, Dr. Dibinga wa Said (from the Democratic Republic of Congo), came to Lynchburg in search of the grave of Ota Benga, a Pygmy who had lived at the Virginia Seminary, (now VUL). He persuaded Ann to organize an international conference on Ota Benga. That was accomplished in cooperation with Lynchburg College, Randolph Macon Woman’s College, Sweet Briar College and VUL. The Pygmies participating in the conference visited the studio and Dr. Dibinga suggested the name “Africa House” for the building.
In the summer of 2008 a completely new heating system was installed. Then on September 15 of that year, an opening ceremony was held for the whole community including students from Virginia University of Lynchburg and other area colleges, artists and friends. A stage was set up under the shade of two large paper mulberry trees in the back yard, and refreshments were served under tents. Garnell Stamps was the Master of Ceremonies and Ann van de Graaf welcomed the guests. For the prosperity of Africa House, Dr. Dibinga wa Said performed an African Libation Ceremony; Tommy Hanks performed a Cherokee Blessing, and the Rev. Robert Marshall gave an Episcopal blessing. Michael Armisted (head of the student body of the Virginia University of Lynchburg), expressed student support in the goals of Africa House, and Rev. James Cobbs sang a moving spiritual. At the close of the ceremony, Garnell Stamps read an original poem composed for the occasion, and Bruce Mabry provided music with his guitar.
In the galleries there was an art exhibition of local artists, organized by Ms. van de Graaf and Sankofa Arts (an organization made up of three sisters - Catherine Drayton, Violet Mitchell and Louise Mitchell), who continue to support Africa House. Violet serves as curator for the gallery along with Barry Donald Jones.
History of Africa House
Acrylic painting by Ann van de Graaf