What a black cemetery teaches us about self control

Plot twists ahead

I read that this photo is one of a kind: the only surviving Civil War portrait of a black soldier with his family. As of 2010, it belongs in the Library of Congress archives.

Sergeant Smith and family

And, according to Rockcastle’s Mount Vernon Signal, the soldier has now been identified as Sergeant Samuel Smith, United States Colored Troops.

The grave markers for Serg. Smith and his wife, Mollie, are found in Mount Vernon’s Walker Newcomb Cemetery, in Rockcastle County, Kentucky.

And therein lies a tale. My father uncovered this story in an old Kentucky Explorer (now part of Kentucky Monthly magazine–this is from the October 2003 issue). Dad visited the cemetery and shared the following with me.

If you recall the tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, you know separation of slave families was a real concern. At any time, a master could sell a family member. That was a troubling prospect for a slave named Walker Newcomb: His wife, Lizzie, worked for a different master. They saw each other occasionally for short periods. Each short visit could have been the last.

Walker was slave to an early Rockcastle County settler named William Newcomb. (It was customary for slaves to use their master’s last name.) This master was rare in that he allowed his slaves to spend time after work as they pleased.

Most slaves used their time after work to rest or tend their own gardens or fish. But not Walker.

Trained as a blacksmith, he received permission to use his master’s tools after hours. He then worked long hours on his own jobs, every night. He saved up enough money to buy his freedom and his own tools.

Once that was accomplished, he wasn’t done. He continued to work for months, taking little time to eat or rest. As the Explorer relates, “After months of backbreaking labor and self-denial, the dream came true.” He purchased Lizzie’s freedom.

Walker and Lizzie then tried to buy some property. But they were denied, since blacks couldn’t buy real estate in that area.

photo courtesy of my dad
Walker Newcomb Cemetery

Here’s the first plot twist: Two white friends bid on it for them. Thanks to that kindness, Walker was able to build a blacksmith shop and a residence for Lizzie and himself. They raised their family there, living in contentment.

Here’s the second plot twist: Lizzie’s old slave master died, leaving his widow penniless.

Guess who took her in?

Lizzie’s old mistress lived with the black family for the rest of her days. Walker purchased plots in a “negro cemetery” for his family–and included the mistress.

She remains the first and only white person buried in that “negro cemetery.”

Plato would approve

It could be a movie, right? I don’t want to be guilty of inserting my modern sensibilities into this 19th-century story. But imagine the “self-denial” and kindness it must have taken to make the decisions he made.

If I had been Walker, I would have been tempted to let my passion take over. I might have turned the widow out in a flourish, finally getting a chance to have the upper hand over my oppressor. “See how it feels.”

And I also would have been tempted to let even baser desires take over. Would I have worked hard enough to earn my wife’s freedom? Would a desire for rest or food have kept me from striving?

To continue working into the night at the smithy after you had been forced to work there through the day–surely that counts as heroic. But it was downright miraculous to then show kindness to the very person who forced you to work.

Plato spoke about this kind of “self-denial” in the Republic.

John La Farge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“The Relation of the Individual to the State” by John La Farge:
Socrates talks to his hosts at the dinner party described in Plato’s Republic

For Plato, the soul is made up of three parts: head, heart and gut, represented by an “inner man,” a lion and a many headed, constantly changing monster. This monstrous gut represented all the desires present in that area: stomach, sex organs and “gut feelings” of self defense.

Head, heart and gut love different things, and the head’s love for truth makes it the ideal ruler for the rest of the soul. If the other parts aren’t in submission to the head, their different motivations create dysfunctional personalities.

Plato describes Socrates arguing that morality is more profitable than immorality:

… our words and behavior should be designed to maximize the control the inner man has within us, and should enable him to secure the help of the leonine quality and then tend to the many-headed beast as a farmer tends to his crops–by nurturing and cultivating its tame aspects, and by stopping the wild ones growing.

Head – reasonHeart – passionGut – desire
wants …to know the truth of thingspower, success, famemoney (for food, drink, sex, etc.)
can supply you with …wisdom to make the right choices courage to carry out those choicesbasic needs
if it’s in charge, you are …intellectual and philosophicalcompetitive and ambitiousmercenary and avaricious
is symbolized by …a man 🤴🏻a lion, larger than the man🦁a multi-headed, ever-changing monster, larger than both man and lion 🐲
Plato’s view of the soul. His original version did not include emojis.

In other words, the reasonable Head should be in charge, with the passionate Heart as its ally, over the varied and changing desires of the gut. The inner man can’t let the lion or the monster take over.

Socrates continues:

… if there’s no profit in someone selling his son or daughter into slavery–slavery under savage and evil men–for even a great deal of money, then what happens if he cruelly enslaves the most divine part of himself to the vilest, most godless part? Isn’t unhappiness the result?

We have all seen extreme examples of this in our culture. When the monster takes over, a person becomes a glutton or pervert, where “their god is their belly,” as St. Paul puts it. How many crimes are rooted in addiction or lust?

When the lion takes over, a person makes decisions based on feelings and emotional states instead of reasoning to the truth–“it felt like the right thing to do” but led to a lifetime of regret. How many crimes are crimes of passion?

How you can use this

photo courtesy of my dad
Walker Newcomb’s blacksmith shop, now the Rockcastle County Attorney’s office

Despite his extremely unjust circumstances, Walker Newcomb never let his Gut or Heart win. And yet he made wealth in his day and has fame still in ours! Self control is a beautiful habit.

So how do you do it?

I have been around the block long enough to know that some of you need to hear the man/lion/monster metaphor and reflect on destructive behaviors you are harboring. You need to seek professional help for your lion or monster before you end up in jail, or further hurting others, or dead. Contact me if you need a confidential referral.

But there are lessons here for all of us.

We need the lion. Our heart gives us the energy and fuel and courage to keep going even when it’s tough.

We need the monster, too, or at least its “tame” heads. I need to eat to stay alive. When I’m in danger, instinct kicking in keeps me alive.

But self control is about not letting the heart or gut, the lion or monster, take over. Here are some next steps.

Recruit your lion.

Instead of your passions getting the best of you, what if they fought for you?

There are several metaphors for the heart besides the lion. In the Republic, Plato also compares the heart to city guards and even to attack dogs. We want guards and dogs completely loyal and gentle with us–and completely fierce with enemies.

Your heart’s passion fuels your actions when difficult circumstances make self control a challenge. Your heart’s courage allows you to do difficult things when your gut tells you to back off and play it safe.

In “Switch,” the Heath brothers share an additional metaphor from their psychological research: the elephant. To borrow that for Plato’s view, think of your heart as the elephant and your head as its rider. A rider can’t make an elephant go anywhere it doesn’t want to go.

But if the rider can motivate the elephant … it’s unstoppable. You might spend time noting your feelings about why the self control you are trying to exercise is important to you. You could break your effort into small, achievable steps. And don’t forget to celebrate your wins and reflect on how these new behaviors really are the kind of person you are.

Know your monster.

Different people have different needs, fears and desires. How well do you know yours? Tools like the DISC assessment give you a way to better understand your motivations, triggers and stressors, as well as what comes naturally to you.

You could also reach out to colleagues, friends and family for some informal feedback: What do they see as your strengths? Situations you struggle in? Triggers to avoid? Hint: The last two questions are a way to get people to be honest with you. Avoid direct “what am I bad at” questions unless you trust the person won’t try to spare your pride–and you trust you can handle hearing their opinion!

Once you know your gut, know how your monster ticks, you can put together a plan to encourage the “tame” parts and avoid exciting the wild parts.

Grow in community.

Plato’s Republic is just that: a republic. That is, it’s an organized community. Every person doing his job for the good of the others.

John Donne was correct: “No man is an island.” The epistle to the Hebrews instructs Christians to live like that is so: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”

If you’ve been reading my blog in isolation, I encourage you to spend time thinking about where your tribe might be.

Perhaps it is a coworker or two who understands you are trying to wrestle and grow. Maybe it’s a prayer breakfast you attend weekly. Or a book club. Or it could be an online coaching group of likeminded professionals.

Whatever it is, you need it. You can’t grow alone.

Even Walker had Lizzie.