The story of Sage Chapel Cemetery will be presented at the National Slave Dwelling Project Conference this Thursday, October 25th, 2018 by historian and author Dorris Keeven-Franke. For more information about the Conference see The Slave Dwelling Project at http://slavedwellingproject.org/ on the web.
As Joseph McGill states, its the people who lived in these dwellings, and who are buried at Sage Chapel Cemetery that need to be acknowledged and know that the world knows “I’se was here”. Sage Chapel Cemetery has at least 117 burials, of which ONLY 37 are acknowledged with a headstone, and we know that many were born enslaved. As long as someone remembers, these people are not to be forgotten.
Sage Chapel Cemetery is an African-American cemetery located on Veterans Memorial Parkway, just east of Highway K in O’Fallon, Missouri. (Just west of the VFW Post 5077) This is the only African-American cemetery still in existence in the City of O’Fallon; it most likely began as a burial ground for the former enslaved members of the Samuel Keithly household. It contains at least 117 burials that have been documented by headstones, obituaries, death certificates and/or living family members. Of these at least 17 were born into slavery. It became a formal one-acre plot when deeded to the African-Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in 1881. The earliest visible gravestone is Priscilla Ball in 1900. African-American families have used this cemetery for well over 100 years. The church that is known to be associated with it, which was located further on Sonderen, as Sage Chapel no longer exists. African-Americans that attended Wishwell Baptist and Cravens Methodist were also buried in Sage Chapel Cemetery, and neither of these churches exist anymore either. Despite exhaustive research there are no records to any of these to be found. This continued to be used as a community cemetery for African-Americans and their families until 2015. Efforts are underway to list the Sage Chapel Cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places. That hearing will be held on August 10, 2018 at the State Historic Preservation Office in Jefferson City and is open to the public.
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’syou 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.
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.
Near the center of the largest city of St. Charles County sits a quiet little plot of ground that transports a visitor to an earlier time when many of its residents were enslaved people. Samuel Keithly brought his family and property to what is today’s City of O’Fallon, in the early 1800s while the friends and followers of American pioneers like Daniel Boone, Jacob Zumwalt and Francis Howell were settling the area. Keithly was one of the largest slave owners in St. Charles County according to the U.S. Slave Schedules of 1850 and 1860. Among those slaves were John Rafferty and his sisters Ludie, Elsie and Lizzie according to oral history.
Wishwell Baptist Church had begun in 1891 and was a plant of Hopewell Baptist Church that had begun in the 1850s south of Wentzville on the Boone’s Lick Road. Wishwell was near the creek, on the east side of Sonderen, very close to the Sage Chapel Church building. The other African-American Church was Craven’s Methodist, begun in 1871, near the corner of Elm and Sonderen. Next to Craven’s, directly on the corner, was the town’s African-American school, and across the street was the “Colored Odd Fellow’s” lodge that met in Willis Thornhill’s house until Henry Obrecht purchased the property in 1910. All of these lay on what is today’s Sonderen Avenue, which ran north to south from the Wabash Railroad to Sage Chapel Cemetery near the former Keithly plantation. This was also the dividing line between the property of the Krekel Addition and the former Keithly family plantation until 1951 and the City’s annexation of property. This was the line for segregation.
Even though all three of these African-American Churches are no longer standing, and the buildings that once housed the black school and the Odd-Fellows lodge are largely
remodeled, Sage Chapel Cemetery still exists. Significant in today’s world simply because such places are so often lost and forgotten. A peaceful and quiet testament to a difficult time and families such as Hayden, White, Edwards, Thomas, Rafferty and Ball. While many of the community of African Americans left O’Fallon in the late 1950s and early 1960s in search of better job opportunities for their families, some remained. And while many of Sage Chapel’s residents died living in St. Charles, St. Louis or even as far as New Orleans, they were brought home to Sage Chapel when they passed. Eventually all three churches would use Sage Chapel to bury their families, making it a community cemetery.
Today the City of O’Fallon sees that the grass is cut, trees cut, and that Sage Chapel is well maintained. The City truly understands that this place has a collective memory that is an integral part of its’ City’s rich history. Its’ Historic Preservation Commission shares in this mission and is working to see that Sage Chapel is preserved for future generations.
Members of the community are working to see Sage Chapel Cemetery placed on the National Register of Historic places. One of the largest cities in Missouri, O’Fallon is setting an example of how to honor its history, even one of the more difficult stories. This in turn has led to a greater understanding in the community and a richer dialogue of the City’s history for everyone.
Today’s research tells us that Sage Chapel Cemetery has 38 marked burials yet is estimated to have 115 grave sites on this small one acre which lies next to O’Fallon’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5077 at 8500 Veterans Memorial Parkway in O’Fallon, Missouri. It is estimated that nearly twenty percent of its burials were former slaves. To watch a video by O’Fallon’s Communications about Sage Chapel Cemetery CLICK HERE.
This small African-American cemetery lies on what was once the Keithly family farm, and today is just west of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5077 on Veterans Memorial Parkway. It has been used by O’Fallon Missouri’s African-American community as a burial ground since 1881, the year it was conveyed to the Trustees of a former African Methodist Episcopal Church, for a cemetery. During the 19th Century, O’Fallon was home to three African-American churches, the Cravens Methodist Episcopal (later Williams Memorial) Wishwell Baptist (a plant of Hopewell Baptist in Wentzville) and Sage Chapel A.M.E.. all were on Sonderen Street. (A list of those buried here is below.)
Burials haven’t been limited simply to members of these churches either, but through the years, as these churches closed, continued to be a burial ground for the African-
American Community. And, while these churches no longer exist, and likewise there are no records extant, we do know today there are 30 headstones, and some handmade markers, and that there are at least 111 documented burials on this property. At least twenty of these people were born as slaves prior to Missouri’s emancipation of of slaves on January 11, 1865. There are also veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War, and veterans of World War I and the Korean War.
When O’Fallon resident and Historic Preservation Commissioner Jim Frain first visited the Sage Chapel Cemetery in June 2013, he noticed that the headstone for Howard Morris, a World War I veteran, was broken and in danger of being lost. Frain approached his friend, Sheldon Hartsfield, also a veteran and Chairman of the O’Fallon Veterans Commission at that time, and they and the Amvets and a few other members of the community came together and saw the headstone with all of the proper ceremony due this veteran, saw that the stone was replaced.
Since then, area historians have researched the cemetery’s history, nominated it for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and all while the City of O’Fallon maintains the cemetery. They have not only cut the grass, but when large trees were toppled, and fences were broken, they addressed the situation and the African-American community took notice. Everyone appreciates this. Sage Chapel Cemetery is significant to more than the African-American community of O’Fallon though.
This is only a portion of O’Fallon’s rich heritage, yet, it is a very necessary and important part. It provides dialogue and discussion and an opportunity to reach out and seek greater understanding of our larger community. It is significant with an educational role, as the stories of over one-hundred of our African-American residents are shared, it teaches a history that isn’t taught in our schools today. Sage Chapel Cemetery is already significant as a burying ground where people’s lives should never be forgotten. But even more important is the role this history has played in our community’s history which needs to be acknowledged and voices heard. If you have a family member buried in Sage Chapel Cemetery, we would like to hear from you. Please contact us using the form below.
Today, along Veterans Memorial Highway, tucked in next to the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars Post 5077, sits the special place we all know and love, Sage Chapel Cemetery. This African-American Cemetery holds at least 111 burials that are researched, documented and identified by either a tombstone, a family marker, or research by local historians. But they only tell part of the story. Each person is like a puzzle piece in the history of the O’Fallon community. And as awareness of this special place has grown, so has the love.
There are 111 documented burials in Sage Chapel Cemetery, but only 30 headstones still remain. There are more documented by family members that are buried there.The oldest stone in the cemetery is Priscilla Ball, born an enslaved person, and buried there in 1900. There are 17 others documented that were also born as enslaved people. We know there are earlier burials, as the deed tells us that the African-American Church trustees purchased it from the Castlio/Keithley family in 1881. The Keithley family had many slaves, probably buried there as well. But research of these burials is difficult, and extremely hard to document. Sometimes we have to rely on more than headstones, death certificates, and obituaries. Sometimes we have to go to the people themselves.
Many of these families, the Hayden, the Thomas and the Whites have shared their stories with us, but we know that there is more work to be done. A Nomination of Sage Chapel Cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places, which is over 60 pages of documentation only shares a bit of the history! The O’Fallon Historical Society has shared its many photographs in its wonderful collection. The City of O’Fallon’s Historic Preservation Commission is working hard to see that the cemetery is preserved for future generations.
Sage Chapel Cemetery needs you. The City of O’Fallon currently maintains the cemetery by seeing that the grass is kept cut, and the toppled trees are removed. The VFW has placed new headstones in honor of the Veterans buried there. Historians like Justin Watkins have worked hours to see that the Nomination to the National Register is successful. Now we must look to the future for Sage Chapel. Hopes are for more to be done that can preserve its stories.
This means everyone can now get involved and help #Preserve Sage Chapel. If it means supporting the City of O’Fallon and the O’Fallon Preservation Commission you can get involved! But it also means that those whose families lie at Sage Chapel can help too now. Please, if you know you have an ancestor at Sage Chapel Cemetery, you can help the story to grow now! We need you! We want to see markers for everyone that is buried there as so many rely simply on the memories and the markers placed there by families. Then we want to see a sign at Sage Chapel that shares its story and identifies everyone for eternity. While nothing should ever disturb its peaceful tranquility, the stories of its people still need to be told. Please help.
If you have family, information, photos or love for Sage Chapel, please share it with us!
Sage Chapel Cemetery is a very special place. More than just a cemetery, it is a place of peace and solace, and the final resting place for the African-American community of O’Fallon, Missouri. For so many it is the only place that they can speak of as “home” and “family” and “my ancestors”. Many of these family members lie in an unmarked grave, where the location is one only known to “Aunt Phyllis” or “Cousin Mary”. And to walk this ground and hear “this is my mother’s grave” and this is where my father is, and to see only the flowers on one, is so sad. To know that with this person, the memory of where his father is, goes with him, is hard to understand in today’s world. But of the one-hundred eleven known burials in Sage Chapel Cemetery, of which at least seventeen were born as slaves, there are only thirty-five graves marked. And some of those are only marked by flowers and a memory.
Back a few years ago though, that began to change. A small group of O’Fallon residents took notice of this place, where the grass was high, and some people did not even realize there was a cemetery. At first the group was small, but they worked to make a change. They involved the community whose ancestors were buried there.The City began to cut the grass and it looked better. Someone bought hundreds of flowers at Dollar General and asked their friends for help in spreading them across the cemetery. Another did research and dug into the family histories of those that were buried there. They talked to their friends at the V.F.W. Post 5077, the neighbors to the east. Word spread and the city featured the story on the local TV channel. An Eagle Scout project brought a bright new sign trying to ensure that everyone in O’Fallon recognized that this was Sage Chapel Cemetery and this is a very special place.
In the past year, there were many more great things that happened at Sage Chapel Cemetery. There was a wonderful new stone placed on a World War I veteran, obtained by Post 5077 to replace the former headstone which was cracked and broken. When trees were blown down, the City was quick to take care and mend fences. Volunteers donated fertilizer and grass seed, and worked to spread that love. Other volunteers helped clean and clear brush. Another spent time searching with a metal detector hoping to find remnants of the old metal funeral home signs. Other volunteers catalogued and photographed, did research in deeds, newspapers and death certificate files. Others surveyed the cemetery carefully recording the names. Volunteers came together to carefully prod in search of any headstones that may have fallen over the years, hoping to find more markers. Flowers were planted at grave sites and under the sign. And there was even more love given to this very special place. And a community began to come together, with a common bond.
Because our color does not matter when we are united under the common bond of our love for family. Our love for our ancestors crosses that boundary, and is shared, whether we are black or white. Love for our family – and a connection to our ancestors – transcends all of that. We can each understand each others need to have a place such as Sage Chapel Cemetery. A place filled with the love even though it may not look like a cemetery, because that is what makes it such a special place. A place where one can say “that’s my family” and share that love with their family and friends.
To the many friends – both old and new – of Sage Chapel Cemetery there is a very big Thank You for everything everyone has done this past year. You know who you are. Everyone is so grateful, and appreciates the community involvement. We are looking forward to 2018 and a wonderful new Chapter, and invite you to visit for yourself, this very special place. We are ending 2017 grateful for the many blessings that Sage has had this year, and looking forward to the beginning of a wonderful 2018.
In 1881, one acre of ground was deeded to the Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church we call today Sage Chapel Cemetery. The land was part of the former Keithly family plantation and had most likely been used by their former slaves as well. These Trustees also purchased a 1/2 acre lot on Sonderen Street with a small building that they used for meetings. At this time, a local preacher with the African Methodist Episcopal Church named Jefferson Franklin Sage, was ministering from St. Charles to Jonesburg.He was well loved and continued to minister there at Sage Chapel. Funerals would take place in the little white church (not to be confused with Wishwell Baptist Church which was also on Sonderen next to it, and the Cravens Methodist Church further along) and then be carried “up the hill” to the cemetery. Eventually the cemetery became home to African American families from all of the surrounding community and not just those that were members of Sage Chapel A.M.E.. Most of the 130 known burials in Sage Chapel Cemetery were born as enslaved people. In 2017 we can identify and locate only 40 of these graves. The cemetery had fallen on hard times and become overgrown. Stones had toppled and many were lost in the overgrowth. Families can recall the entire cemetery as full, with many marked simply by a small metal funeral home marker. These are easily removed and lost as well. Many of the families simply marked a loved one’s grave by a field stone, with initials chiseled onto the surface. Many never had a stone. This was, and still is, an integral part of the entire O’Fallon community. No one can identify who owns Sage Chapel Cemetery today. It belongs to all of us. It is part of our community’s history, and there to remind us of our roots. Whether we were black or white, it is there to remind us to be kind, and to care for each other. We can be thankful to the City of O’Fallon for its care, and the many friends who come together. Those that are buried there are “Never to be forgotten”.
History. Its who we are. Everyone has history. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, young or old, German or Irish, dead or alive. Its more than the story of a place or a time, because it’s the story of people. Their lives. And all lives matter. It can be found in a child’s face when he spins hemp into rope like his ancestors did. It can be seen in a man’s joy when he visits a blacksmith and relives the craftsmanship of the past. It can be felt when the stories of our ancestors are told so that we may hear their voices. Everyone has history. When we connect with that history, we know who we are. Where we come from tells us where we are going. If we rush too much in our daily lives, we must find time, to slow down and reconnect with our history. Its who we are.Please join us Sunday October 29th as we prod the earth and work to uncover more of the history of Sage Chapel Cemetery. There are many voices there that still need to be heard. The story is just beginning…. Please help us as we gather together, and prod the ground, in search of any gravestones that may have fallen or broken. This is one acre of ground, rich in the history of many of the black families in St. Charles County, not just this A.M.E. Church.
Join us at 1pm at the Cemetery in O’Fallon on Veterans Memorial Parkway next to the VFW across from Ethyls. If you have any type of sharp instrument that can be used to prod the ground as much as 6 inches, please bring it. We are working to have more cemetery prods available. We need at least 20 people to walk shoulder to shoulder so that we cover it thoroughly and do not miss any stones. We know that many of those buried here never had a headstone. Even if you do not feel able to prod please join us for a day to rejoice in the spirit and history of Sage Chapel Cemetery.