Your lungs feel as if they might explode, if your heart doesn’t give out first. You stumble on rocks you can’t see in the darkness. You can taste the fear at the back of your mouth. Fear is all you have eaten for days as you stumbled across this unfamiliar terrain. But, there is not time to rest. You have to escape! You have to find that cave … you heard the whispers and you know it is there … somewhere. It has to be near.
A tree limb slaps your face as you push through the underbrush, keeping close to the shadows. Though your cheek stings, you cannot cry out for they might hear. Clutching your child closer to your breast, almost smothering his whimpers, you cannot croon to him to soothe his fear. Yet, as you make your way south, you whisper, “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…”
Are they close behind? Are they on horseback? Do they have dogs? If they do, it’s all for no use. When they capture you, as surely they will when the bloodhounds whiff your scent, they will send you back to a life of slavery — after they have had their “sport” with you. And, Master will beat you within an inch of your life, though he won’t injure you so badly that you are no longer able to work. After all, you are valuable property. Perhaps to punish you, he will sell your baby away from you. He won’t kill you, you will just wish he had.
Ahead … is that the cliff you heard about in the stories? Your eyes scan the face of it and there it is! A crevice in the rock, you can just barely see it in the moonlight. You scramble up the rocks, skinning your knees in the process and tumble into the cool darkness of the cave. Resting on the sandstone floor, you rock your baby and listen. No baying hounds or pounding hoofbeats. Despite your best efforts, you fall asleep.
Suddenly, you waken in terror. Fingers of sunlight stretch across the cave floor, you can see the spider webs above you … there must be millions of spiders! And, you hear a sound of rustling in the grass below! You hold your breath … and then you hear it.
A little boy is singing, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Coming for to carry me home …”
Yes! It is the right place. The safe place, just like the stories said. Soon, the little boy peeps in the mouth of the cave. His smile is big and gleaming in his ebony face as he whispers, “Brung you some buttermilk, cornbread, and beans with ham hock. You hungry?”
For the first time, the tears start to flow.
On the shores of Grapevine Lake, in what is now Southlake, there is a cave that supposedly has ties to an “underground railroad” — an escape route for slaves on their way to Mexico in the 1800s. Of course, the lake wasn’t there then. It wasn’t built until around 1952 when the Corps of Engineers dammed up Denton Creek (a tributary of the Little Elm Fork of the Trinity River). I imagine that in the 1800s, that crevice, with its sandstone walls, was nestled in a hillside. The land surrounding it was rocky and rough, probably covered in mesquite and post oak trees.
I’d read about this cave which is occasionally submerged by the lake, in the Fort Worth Star Telegram back in 1996. My heart began to race in fear as my vivid imagination conjured the scenario above. Sure, my version is fiction (except that little boy was real), but I imagine that it is not too far from reality for escaping slaves who came through Texas.
In a story written by Leslie Hueholt (who wrote many intriguing stories of the North Texas area history), a descendant of that little boy in the story above told about the cave. Marylyn Elizabeth Miles, one of that boy’s great-granddaughters, took Hueholt to the cave to tell the legend passed down in her family.
The boy was John Dolford “Bob” Jones, who was born a slave … the son of the white master. Starting when he was about 10 years old, Bob Jones took food to escaping slaves who hid in that cave. The family estimated that nearly 600 slaves eventually took refuge there.
Marylyn was trying to get the Corps of Engineers to designate the cave a historic site, to protect it from vandals. However, I don’t know if that ever happened. I called a lot of people back in 1996, trying to find out more about the story. I wanted to see the cave with my own eyes so that I could “feel” the experience, but I never got that far.
In my henscratching, I recorded that Bob Jones was given some land by his white father at the end of the Civil War. He then began to amass more land, eventually owning some 2,500 acres where he built a church and a school for his family. When Grapevine Lake was created, most of that land wound up underwater. What was left got sold away and covered in “McMansions.” There is a park named for Bob Jones, and a road named after him, but the black history of Southlake is mostly forgotten except during February for the Black History Month celebrations. You can read an article about Bob Jones in the Dallas Morning News but you’d better do it before they put it in the archives.
For several days I dug in the different search engines trying to find out more about the story. I can find no documentation that the tales of the Underground Railroad are true, but I’m willing to believe the family stories. In fact, I couldn’t find record of the cave on-line until I dug for hours in the archives of The Fort Worth Star Telegram and ransomed the tale for $3.00.
If you came to my neck of the woods, you probably wouldn’t get to visit the cave. I don’t think you would be able to see it except from a boat on the water of Grapevine Lake. It’s my understanding that it is surrounded by private property. If this bit of history is true, it’s a shame that The Corps of Engineers hasn’t done more to preserve it.
Personally, I want to believe the stories are true … and that there was a little bit of a safe haven for the persecuted right here in north Texas.