Saunders: Abraham Hinton comes home for the final time

Documentary on family’s plantation made him star late in life

bsaunders@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2012 

— They brought Abe home one last time, but they didn’t take him by the old homestead — the one where Old Pap’s big house once stood, the one that made Abe famous.

Good thing, too, because the big house — Midway Plantation — isn’t there anymore. It’s been replaced by a Home Depot and a shopping center.

Abraham Lincoln Hinton died last week at age 102 in New York, where he’d lived for the past 80 years. But he grew up in North Carolina, and he was buried in Raleigh on Wednesday.

Hinton became a star — what would you call a dude who was feted and received a standing ovation at the Lincoln Center in New York after his big screen debut? — at 97, when Godfrey Cheshire made a documentary about his family’s effort to move the house about two and a half miles from its previous location on U.S. 64 East.

The Shoppes at Midway Plantation isn’t just a too-cute-by-far name for a Knightdale shopping center: Midway used to be an honest-to-God, for-real working plantation.

The documentary about the plantation, “Moving Midway,” started out small, almost as a vanity project, Cheshire said when I talked to him soon after it was completed.

“I thought I’d just make a small documentary for my family, but people said, ‘This is too good; you should make a film,’ ” Cheshire, an acclaimed writer and film critic, said. The plantation, he said, “was a special place to me growing up. It was a romantic place. ... It seemed that it hadn’t changed in 100 years.”

Cheshire, who is white, never knew about the black side of his family, from which Abraham Hinton was descended.

But then bulldozers started digging around on the former plantation and Cheshire started digging around in his family tree. That’s when he and Al Hinton, a New York schoolteacher and Abraham’s son, found — independently of each other — that the branches on their respective family trees ran together. Cheshire discovered he had close to 100 black relatives.

Whew. Better set a few extra places at the table, huh?

Country boys in Cuban shoes

In a tribute to Hinton at the funeral Wednesday, Kimball Jones told how Hinton and he grew up together here and stayed in touch through nine decades of strife, change and style. Yes, style.

“We were all country boys,” Jones, 99, recalled. “We didn’t know nothing about no shoes — only on Sunday.”

The several dozen friends and family members at Hinton’s funeral at Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Raleigh roared with laughter when Jones told of how he and Hinton became ensnared in the fashion trend of bell-bottomed pants and high-heeled “Cuban” shoes.

“On Sundays, we’d put on those high-heeled shoes. They were all right as long as you were walking up hills,” he recalled. “But when you started down the hills, they weren’t so good. ... We found we had to turn around and back down the hill.”

Laughter at a funeral might seem incongruous — out of place, even — but not when you’ve lived 102 years and left behind the kinds of memories that Hinton — called “Uncle Buddy” by family members — has.

Cheshire, in his remarks during the service and in a brief interview after, called meeting Hinton while making the documentary “one of the greatest events and blessings in my life. ... He was one of those living angels you are sometimes privileged to meet. I will always admire him. He was a beautiful spirit.”

How, I asked, did Hinton at his advanced age adapt to the notoriety he received when the documentary came out in 2007?

“I think he was a very good movie star,” Cheshire said. “He really took to it. He enjoyed going out and meeting people and seeing the effect that it had on people. He went to a number of screenings with us, and he got a kick out of it.”

Pap’s house

Abraham never lived at Midway Plantation, Cheshire said, “but he talks in the film about how they used to take him past it and say ‘That’s where your grandfather lived.’ ”

The house is still in Knightdale, refurbished and occupied by one of Cheshire’s cousins.

I didn’t talk to Al Hinton on Wednesday — I figured he didn’t want to be bothered by a reporter while at his daddy’s funeral. But when I talked to him for a story nearly three years ago, he said his father seldom spoke about his years growing up in North Carolina. He preferred talking about his time in the U.S. Army during World War II. On the rare occasions that Abraham did mention Midway, Al said at the time, he “spoke about how growing up there as a kid, they’d walk by the two-story white house and point it out as ‘Pap’s house.’ ”

Pap was Ruffin Hinton, the mixed-race son of Charles Hinton — the Hinton family patriarch and former North Carolina treasurer — and a slave cook, Selanie.

Ruffin had 22 children. One of them, Julia Hinton, became Abraham Hinton’s mother. Abraham’s father, Richmond, was a Hinton, too, but from a different branch, making his mother’s name Julia Hinton Hinton after she married.

Of Abraham, Cheshire said, “His place in the film is just so remarkable. He makes the whole thing come together. Jay (Spain, the documentary’s producer) wrote me an email after he’d passed and said he didn’t know anybody with such hardships in life who had such a joyful spirit. .. If I could be like anybody I’ve ever met, I would be like Abraham.”

Then, noting the historical arc encompassed by Hinton’s life — from ancestors born in slavery to unimaginable technological advances to a black president, Cheshire said, “You know how they say when some people die that ‘We won’t see their like again?’ Well, in Abraham’s case, that’s true.”

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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