When researching the Sage Chapel Cemetery’s history one can be amazed at the wonderful relationship the entire community has had for years! So many people have been involved over the years, caring about this special place, and wanted to see it preserved. Sage Chapel Cemetery is a testimony to the number of people who have cared about it. Here is an excerpt from the O’Fallon Community News, 18 February 2004 by a writer named Patricia Swinger:
“Several months ago now, I got a note from Judge Earl Drennan asking me if I knew anything about the Sage Chapel Cemetery. I didn’t know anything about it, except that it was situated next to the VFW Hall on Veteran’s Memorial Parkway. To be perfectly honest, I’d never even noticed the sign “Sage Chapel Cemetery” and had never heard of the Sage Chapel. Since I’m one of those strange people who like to walk through cemeteries in historic cities, Lewis and I decided to take a look for ourselves.
What I saw on the headstones were the names of many of the black folks who lived along Sonderen Street when I was a child. Among them were Simon and Cora White, Elizabeth (everyone knew her as Grandma) Hayden, Slick Thomas and his mother. Edward Dierker who was a Blackfoot Indian … according to his granddaughter, Arlene White.
It’s been quite a task, tracking down the story behind Sage Chapel and the cemetery that took its name. I talked to Mary Stephenson whose family lived in St. Paul and then moved to O’Fallon so the children could go to Franklin High School in St. Charles. Mary went to the little white church that sat next to the creek on Sonderen, the Wish Well [sic] Baptist Church. Most of her family, though, went to the Methodist Church that was next to the black school at the corner of Sonderen and Elm. That’s the church she remembers as Sage Chapel.
I got a slightly different story, though, when I talked to Tommy White, Simon White’s son who, by the way, will turn eighty-nine this Valentine’s Day. Though the Sage Chapel he
heard tell of was before even his time, it was his understanding that Sage Chapel was originally located midway on Sonderen, approximately where Pitman meets Sonderen.
All of this took place even before Sonderen Street was given its name. The Sonderen family owned a strip of farmland that stretched from Old Highway 40 all the way up to St. Joseph St., north of the railroad tracks. Frank Amptmann’s grandparents, Gerhardt and Elizabeth Sonderen, built the original Wildwood Saloon that is now Ethyl’s. According to Arlene White, the church was named Sage Chapel after the sage fields that grew wild on the middle portion of the Sonderen property. Black folks used to gather in those sage fields to worship and later on, pooled their resources to build the church. Some people understood that the land had long ago been given to the black community for a cemetery; some thought that the black families also pooled their resources to buy the land. Exactly how the land for the cemetery was transferred and where Sage Chapel was may have to remain a mystery.
It should tell us something, I think, that so few records and photographs remain to tell the story of O’Fallon’s black community. Before Sonderen Street got its name, Mary Stephenson
tells me that this street, where most of the black folks lived, was referred to as simply “The Hill.” Arlene White told me that, in 1922, a deed for one of the properties was filed with an address that had a racial pejorative before the word “Hill.” If we’re all going to be honest enough to admit that that’s what Sonderen Street was sometimes called, let me also say that I never heard any animosity associated with the name, probably because the folks who lived there were all respected and well-liked. You couldn’t have asked for better people than Simon and Cora White who raised eight children and made sure all of them had an education. Never was there a kinder, gentler and more respected man in O’Fallon than Billie Hayden. And let’s not
forget Louie Dierker, who was crippled since childhood. The story, as Arlene relayed it to me, was that he wanted to go along with the men when they rode out to the fields to work. So he jumped on the wagon and as it bounced across the field, he fell off, hit a tree and broke his back. With no medical care, the bones in his back fused as they were broken and for the rest of his life he walked with a cane, his body bent at an almost perfect ninety-degree angle. Despite that, I doubt he ever missed a day of work.
Anyone who in any way attempts to record history must at some point face the dilemma before me as I write. If this is part of O’Fallon’s history, and it is, it needs to be told and not glossed over just to make it more palatable. Yes, there was segregation, particularly where the churches and schools were concerned. Still, as Mary Stephenson said, “Most folks treated you all right—not all.”
So, to the people who now take their rest in Sage Chapel, I’d like to say a few things. To Simon White: I saw you often as I walked to school and thought to myself what a wonderful grandfather you must be. To Elizabeth Hayden: I will never forget your son’s smile and friendly wave as he drove by our house. To “Slick” Thomas: Mary Stephenson told me you were an incredible artist. I’m sorry I never knew that.”
There will be a program at the O’Fallon Historical Society with more history of Sage Chapel by Dorris Keeven-Franke, on Monday, June 4th at 6:30 p.m. and the public is invited. Please come and bring a friend.