The Story Of The Plantation That Moved Away
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Godfrey Cheshire is a New York film critic who's written for Interview magazine, The Village Voice and other publications. He grew up playing in his family home called Midway, that had been a plantation built just outside of Raleigh in 1848 by an ancestor, Charles Lewis Hinton.
A few years ago he learned that his cousins were going to move Midway about three miles away to avoid getting overrun by a new suburban development. He decided to cross over to the other side of the camera and try and make a film about that move. About the same time he saw a letter to the editor in the New York Times written by a New York University professor named Robert Hinton.
They wound up joining forces as director and historian to make this movie about an old plantation house unearthing the past.
(Soundbite of movie, "Moving Midway")
Mr. GODFREY CHESHIRE (Film Critic): Well, originally this was Tarver Road, and it was a wagon track. Now there's 55,000 cars a day go by here, like that.
(Soundbite of car passing)
Mr. CHESHIRE: There's nothing you can do about it. It's just not good to be here. So we're going to pick her up and go.
SIMON: The film, "Moving Midway," is now available on DVD. Godfrey Cheshire and Robert Hinton both join us from our studios in New York. Gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us.
Professor ROBERT HINTON (New York University): Thank you.
Mr. CHESHIRE: We're glad to be here.
SIMON: So are you two related?
Prof. HINTON: We don't think so.
Mr. CHESHIRE: No, we don't.
Prof. HINTON: I'm claiming that we're not.
Mr. CHESHIRE: Okay. And I'm sort of wishing that we were.
Prof. HINTON: But I have to acknowledge that since our families were connected for 150 years, it's unlikely that no one crossed the line in that time.
SIMON: We should explain that Professor Hinton, you teach Africana Studies there at NYU, right?
Prof. HINTON: Right, exactly.
SIMON: Let's begin with that whole premise of moving Midway plantation. Tell us how this came about.
Mr. CHESHIRE: Well, my cousin Charlie Silver, who owns Midway, and his wife Deena(ph), talked to me after the recent Christmas gatherings and told me they were thinking about picking up and moving the plantation buildings, which when we were kids were very quiet and out in the country. The plantation stands on land that's been in our family since they got a royal land grant in 1739.
And just the place has seemed like sort of the sacred center of the family, the land as well as the buildings and such. And so it really seemed like it touched on a lot of themes having to do with the South and the contested parts of our history, that I thought it was the basis for an interesting story.
SIMON: And Professor Hinton, help us understand some of that history.
Prof. HINTON: Well, the best I can tell you is that around somewhere in the 1720s a man named John Hinton, who lived up in the northeastern corner of North Carolina had a slave named Mingo(ph). I'm not absolutely sure that Mingo is my biological ancestor, but he was the patriarch of the black Hinton families that have developed since that time.
SIMON: I want to play a clip, if we could, of when both of you men about town in New York went down to the Midway plantation and had dinner with the current owner, Charlie Silver. Let's hear a clip of dinner.
(Soundbite of movie, "Moving Midway")
Mr. CHARLIE SILVER: I guess this is a little bit of a homecoming.
Prof. HINTON: I guess.
Mr. CHESHIRE: Delayed.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SILVER: Have a seat. Make yourselves at home.
SIMON: Professor Hinton, it sounds all cordial and civil. What was it really like?
Prof. HINTON: Well, in fact, it was cordial and civil. I mean, you have to understand that throughout this film I'm on my best manners because this film for me is like a teaching opportunity. And so when I'm teaching controversial issues like slavery and segregation and racism and lynching, one of the things I'm constantly asking myself is how much can I dump on my students before they shut down.
In the film, one of the things that's on my mind is to not give the viewer any excuse to stop listening. So I was civil and they were very civil. I mean, there was no reason for us not to be civil, actually. The people who were responsible for slavery have been long dead.
SIMON: And Mr. Cheshire, there are some awkward moments in the film, and I'm thinking when - I guess it's a cousin of yours talks about how he shared his bed growing up.
Mr. CHESHIRE: Yes, he does talk about sharing the bed with five young black kids and playing with them all the time. But in the course of…
SIMON: He doesn't say young black kids either.
Mr. CHESHIRE: No, he uses the N-word. But you know, he says they loved you, they were family. And to me, that whole little thing that he says just in a few words conjures up the paradox of race in the South, especially from people with a plantation background where you could have been so close to these people that, you know, there was love there and there was affection and yet you're still seeing them as this different class of people.
But I do think that the familiarity that's there is the basis for a better relationship in the future, and I really do think that it will be. I think the one that's very special about the South is that black people and white people have had so much history in common, so much culture in common. The South is really an Afro-European culture, and those two things are just so blended together that I think that's the basis for greater civility and greater understanding in the future.
SIMON: What do you feel about that, Professor Hinton?
Prof. HINTON: Well, with that particular cousin of Godfrey's, his statement was part of a larger phenomena that is sort of an undercurrent running through the film, which is that you have these - you have Godfrey and his three cousins and Godfrey's mother and the others, all of whom are trying to deal with this really complicated legacy that's been dropped in their laps.
And so you see Godfrey's way of dealing with it is to make this film, to acknowledge it, to put it out there, to have a discussion of it. Charlie deals with it by preserving the home place. And the other two cousins, Winkie and Possum, I think what Winkie said in that scene was an expression of - in order to deal with slavery he's got to see black people in a certain way, in a certain role which makes it comfortable for him to then identify as the descendant of the master.
SIMON: I wonder how the experience of making the film may have changed any of your thinking about your family, your ancestors, who you are now.
Mr. CHESHIRE: Well, it made me think a lot about the historical experience of the entire family. And once I discovered I had a large African-American component to this side of my family, it made me think a lot more about their historical experience, what they had been through. I think a lot of white Southerners, you know, especially since the civil rights era, it's like -blacks are equal, you don't have to think about what they've been through. But you can at least talk about it and try to imagine, and that is very, very valuable.
SIMON: And Professor Hinton?
Prof. HINTON: What the process for me in making the film was that all of this stuff that I read and studied sort of abstractly became very personal. At one point I was in the archive - Midway was built for David Hinton. David Hinton had married Mary Boddie Car from Edgecombe County. So I went to her father's will. And I'm reading his will and in his will it says, And to my daughter, Mary, I leave her mother's gold watch, a bureau containing all of her mother's clothing, and the Negro girl Emily.
And I stopped and I backed up and I said, The Negro girl Emily. Emily was my great-grandmother. So here I am sitting in the archive trying to be the professional historian, not wanting to, you know, burst into tears and, you know, sort of blow my image. There were times when I would think that at some point in the 150 years that my people were the salves of the Hintons, there must have been at least one slave like me - you know, a tall, opinionated, a wise-ass, intelligent man who has to deal with the fact that he is the property of these short, unattractive, not very smart white folks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. HINTON: And I try to imagine what his experience might've been like, what it must've been like for him trying to deal with that situation.
Mr. CHESHIRE: Robert is kidding, by the way. We should clarify that.
Prof. HINTON: I have to keep the Hinton's, you know, humble a little bit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. HINTON: I mean we, you know, we created each other in a sense. You know?
Prof. HINTON: If you look around the world where people of British descent have migrated, you go to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the American South, the other three, they all sound more or less alike. It's the British who moved to the southeastern United States who sound differently. And the reason they sound differently is because they brought in African slaves who taught them how to talk. You know, we taught them how to eat. We taught them how to walk. We taught them how to talk.
You know, they don't know who they are without us. And you know, of course, they had some impact on us. And so we have created each other over the past two or three hundred years.
SIMON: Robert Hinton teaches Africana Studies at New York University. Godfrey Cheshire is a New York-based filmmaker now and a film critic. Their documentary, "Moving Midway," is now available on DVD.
Gentleman, thank you so much for being with us.
Mr. CHESHIRE: Thanks a lot, Scott.
Prof. HINTON: Bye-bye.