In today’s world, the sight of an African-American Cemetery whose roots go back to slavery, is rare. This significant historic site with well over 100 burials we call Sage Chapel Cemetery is well cared for by the City of O’Fallon, with two beautiful signs proclaiming its existence to the world, but was for many years… O’Fallon’s biggest mystery. According to O’Fallon Historic Preservation Commissioner Jim Frain “Its a mystery that people have been working on for years.” The recent history of the cemetery is as important as the story of its’ beginning. Today, Sage Chapel Cemetery, would perhaps not even be here, if it were not for the love of the community that surrounds it. Nestled along Veterans Memorial Parkway, this historic site pays tribute to a difficult time for the African-American members of the O’Fallon community. Its history which was once shrouded and mysterious is slowly revealing itself thanks today to the efforts of many of its’ residents.
For decades, the families of those who were buried at Sage Chapel Cemetery had taken care of their own. Many of the families, whose family names go back in O’Fallon’s history as far as the 1800’s, can be found on the thirty headstones that stand there today. Approximately 20% of those buried at Sage Chapel Cemetery were born enslaved. Names like Abington, Claiborne, Dierker, and Dryden, go back to the 19th Century. The families
of Edwards, Thomas, Luckett, and White still have descendants living in the area today. Mary Patrick Stephenson moved to O’Fallon from St. Paul in the 1940s so that it would be easier for her to catch the bus to Franklin School in St. Charles, which was the only school for African-Americans that Mary could attend in order to receive an education. She recalls going by Sage Chapel Cemetery every day when she was young. The families placed flowers on Memorial Day and cared for the cemetery throughout the year. As writer Pat Swinger noted when she wrote about the cemetery, there was a small sign that her husband Lewis Swinger, with David Hinman had built, on their own, and erected there. Sometime between 2005 and 2009, former City Administrator Robert Lowery insisted the City should take on the responsibility of Sage Chapel Cemetery.
Damage to cemetery in 2012 draws community attention
In the late summer of 2012, an incident brought the cemetery to the attention to the City of O’Fallon when someone allegedly crossed the cemetery with some landscaping equipment, maintaining that he did not know there was a cemetery there. The damage done to the cemetery was major! The entire community was outraged that
the resting spot for all of its African-American members could be vandalized in such a horrible way. The O’Fallon Police Department needed more information in order to pursue their case against the vandals. They visited the location that many of the St. Charles residents do when they are looking for answers and history, the St. Charles County Historical Society on Main Street in the City of St. Charles. There they asked archivist Dorris Keeven-Franke “who owns the cemetery today?” The St. Charles County Assesor’s records did not show any owner on record even then. She enlisted the aid of a volunteer who specializes in deed research, Justin Watkins. A flurry of emails followed. From Keeven-Franke to Watkins on September 12, 2012, “Great work Justin! I spoke with Tom Stephenson yesterday. Apparently that person …decided to make his own easement and took a bulldozer through the cemetery! When you have a chance, can you go get pictures please??? I am going to go back to the County… All because NO ONE can find a deed for who currently owns it.We have to save this cemetery!!!”
A lot of people agreed! And although no deeds were located, a community came together and more people became involved. Three local residents banded together to see what they could do. Local historian Mary-Hogan Smith passionately pleaded with the City of O’Fallon, trying to raise awareness. Then, in 2013, long time resident and O’Fallon’s Historic Preservation Commissioner Jim Frain was drawn in by the history of Sage Chapel Cemetery, when he met Phyllis Hayden, who had been born in O’Fallon and grew up there. Her father, well-known and well-loved O’Fallon resident Bill Hayden, had maintained the cemetery for years. O’Fallon TV Producer Joe Meier interviewed Frain, Hayden and Hogan in March of 2014 where they shared their passion for the cemetery.
Recognition of O’Fallon’s only African-American cemetery was growing, thanks to the efforts of these three people. More great things were happening for Sage Chapel Cemetery. Local Boy Scout’s Eagle Project, by Jim Pepper, brought a newer and larger sign to Sage Chapel giving it more visibility. Still veteran’s like Sheldon Hartsfield, whose V.F.W. Post 5077 neighbored Sage, weren’t really aware until Jim Frain drew his attention to one very very special stone. Howard Morris, the Great-Uncle of Phyllis Hayden, was a World War I
Veteran. According to Jim Frain “Howard Morris served our country in World War 1 as a Private in the Head Quarters Company of the 65th Pioneer Infantry…The Pioneer Infantry built roads, fortifications and created lines of approach for the US Army.” That’s when Jim Frain and Sheldon Hartsfield formed a mission, to replace the broken headstone of Morris. They would not stop until not only was Howard Morris’ stone replaced, but the family would be honored by a full military funeral due this important Veteran of the Great War. (Morris will also be honored in the new St. Charles County Veterans Museum opening in 2019.)
Nine months ago, O’Fallon TV once again visited Sage Chapel Ceremony, when the entire community came together to honor Howard Morris. Hundreds of citizens, watched a deserving family receive the tribute they had not received in 1957, a time still troubled by segregation. This beautiful ceremony brought a community together on the afternoon of August 12, 2017, demonstrating the love of the O’Fallon, Missouri community, and the exact same time as the Charlottesville Massacre. The City of O’Fallon maintains and takes care of the cemetery today, making certain the grass is cut and trees trimmed. Many local citizens care about this special place.
Sage Chapel Cemetery today
Today, the history of Sage Chapel Cemetery is better known than it was years ago. Today, efforts by several local residents, are seeing that families like the Stephensons, the Thomas, and the Haydens, are recorded for history. These families can still identify where their loved ones reside. O’Fallon’s Joe Meier has been helping with that. Family photographs are being combed for pictures of Howard Morris and other African-American families buried at Sage Chapel Cemetery. Their voices, and these stories, need to be heard, and recognized, if we are to confront a difficult past. These were families whose lives were a separate and difficult experience from most other residents. Growing up on “The Hill” meant something different than it did on Main Street. Sonderen Street had been home to the town’s African-American families as far back as the 1800s. There was the school for the black children at the northwest corner of Elm and Sonderen. Next to that was Cravens, a Northern Methodist Church, which many families attended. Behind that was the former Williams home, later Billie Hayden.
Across the street from the black school and Cravens Methodist, on the northeast corner was the home of Willis Thornhill at the turn of the century. In the early 1900s, when German emigrant Henry Obrecht bought the property, it was where the O’Fallon Colored Oddfellows Lodge was meeting. Further down the east side of Sonderen, by the creek, where the culvert is today, sat the Wishwell Baptist Church, an outgrowth of the earlier Hopewell Baptist Church in Wentzville on Highway N. Behind Wishwell, to the southeast sat the small little church of Sage Chapel. From these three churches, came the families that were buried up the hill at the little one acre cemetery we call Sage Chapel Cemetery.
Only by acknowledging the voices of these people, and listening to their stories, can we begin understanding. These stories explain why we have different perspectives due to
difficult and challenging life experiences. We need to tell the hard stories. We need to listen to the hard stories. We need to understand the hard stories. Hopefully with an open dialogue and understanding will come compassion and healing. As the story of Sage Chapel Cemetery has slowly been revealed, many documents explaining its history give us part of the story. In 2016, O’Fallon Historic Preservation Commission President Karolyn Terpstra presented a history of Sage Chapel Cemetery to the O’Fallon City Council. But this wasn’t the whole story, and efforts are being made today to see Sage Chapel Cemetery nationally recognized and listed on the National Register of Historic Places by Public Historian and writer Dorris Keeven-Franke, also a member of the O’Fallon Historic Preservation Commission.
Next time you drive down Veterans Memorial Parkway, just a half mile east of Hwy K, across the street from Ethyl’s you will pass by Sage Chapel Cemetery. Stop by and say hello. You will find yourself transported back to a time in history in a way no building can ever do. You will meet a community, that was once separate, but for no longer. Today it is being embraced by all, hopefully to be preserved for future generations to explore and learn its stories as well.
For more information or if you want to share your story of Sage Chapel Cemetery