Movie maker changes family's history in story

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 17, 2009 

  • If You Go

    'Moving Midway'

    What: Part of One World Film Festival. Alicestyne Adams of Georgetown College will lead a discussion after the screening.

    When: 2 p.m. Feb. 22.

    Where: Lexington Public Library, 140 E. Main St.

    Admission: Free.

    Info: (859) 266-6073,

Godfrey Cheshire, a noted New York film critic, had mixed emotions when he learned his cousins would be moving the family's ancestral North Carolina home about 3 miles away to escape encroaching development.

Without the move, the old plantation and its four outlying buildings would be surrounded by asphalt, shopping centers and traffic.

Cheshire decided to get on the other side of the camera to make Moving Midway, a humorous, entertaining and poignant documentary that delves into the changing South as well as the relocation of the Hinton family treasure.

It will be shown for free at the Lexington Public Library on Sunday as part of the One World Film Festival.

Before the plantation buildings were moved in 2005 to just north of their original site, Cheshire discovered a few hidden secrets about his family tree: There was an African-American branch of Hinton descendants no one knew of before.

"When I set out to make my film Moving Midway, ... I was intending to portray our family, its traditions and memory, all of which I thought I knew very well," Cheshire wrote in an e-mail. "But by the end of the process, much of this 'knowledge' — even the nominal facts — had melted away or been drastically transformed.

"For one thing, the 'white' family I thought I knew was significantly different by the end of the filming, thanks to the discovery of over 100 previously unsuspected African-American cousins, the results of a pre-Civil War liaison between my great-great-great-grandfather, a prominent planter and statesman, and a slave he owned."

Cheshire said the film taught him "that family traditions cannot only preserve past realities, but also disguise them."

He said that when he was a child playing at Midway, the family matriarch told the children stories about a beloved slave named Mingo who had lived before the matriarch was born. "But she never told us that she had an African-American uncle, whom she must have known as a child," he said.

The film starts with a history of Midway Plantation, built in 1848 about 8 miles east of Raleigh. Charles Lewis Hinton had Midway built for his son David on part of the land acquired in a British land grant in the 1730s. It was a working plantation, complete with slaves.

After he decided to make the documentary, Cheshire was back in New York when he saw a letter to the editor in The New York Times that was written by Robert Hinton, a New York University professor of Africana studies.

When Cheshire contacted Hinton, he discovered that Hinton's grandfather, Dempsey, or Demsie, had been a slave at Midway and had taken his master's surname, as many slaves did, although he was not related.

Robert Hinton said his grandfather was about 60 when Hinton's father was born in 1919.

Cheshire and Hinton joined forces for the documentary, with Hinton becoming the chief historian and associate producer.

"By the time I began working on Moving Midway, I had taught slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction for more than 15 years," Hinton said. "In making the film, there were very few surprises. I knew, already, how things worked. The research I did for the film simply brought all I had learned down to the personal level."

Viewers get to see two sides of life at Midway, one from the owners' perspective and one from that of the slaves. One was filled with nostalgia and warmth and one not quite so.

Cheshire's family members recalled stories of happy, contented, well-treated slaves. The black Hintons recalled pain and oppression.

"The one thing I may have learned is that, for some people, memory and tradition may be more important than history," Hinton said. "Some people don't want to know what really happened if it might make them uncomfortable."

Cheshire agreed.

"Before 1865, many Southerners knew they had relatives on the other side of the color line because they lived on the plantations or in the communities where mixed-race children were born and raised," Cheshire said. "But after the war, out of shame or prejudice, both races found reasons to forget these blood connections."

All of that is intertwined in the 98-minute documentary as it shows the plantation home slowly moving through the twists, turns and bumps of the back roads of North Carolina. The move was accomplished in three stages over several weeks in July and August 2005.

Moving Midway is the second of 11 films being presented through March 22 for the 11th annual One World Film Festival.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or

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