Howard I. Morris passed away on April 29, 1957 and was buried at Sage Chapel Cemetery on May 2, 1957. He had been born in the small town of Auburn in Lincoln County, on October 8, 1889, the son of Shadrack “Shad” and Harriet (Boone) Morris. Howard’s father had served in the 64th U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. After emancipation on January 11, 1865, Shad and Harriet were married on January 3, 1866. They raised a family of 12 children, however only seven were still living in 1910. Howard’s siblings were Browdy, Stella, Minnie, Levia, Golela, and Lena.
Soon came World War I, and 27 year-old Howard Morris enlisted in the 65th Pioneer Infantry of the United State Army on September 26, 1918 where he served in the Headquarters Company. He came home on December 7, 1918. After his discharge from the Army in 1918, Howard married Mary Truelove “Lovie” Luckett Vardeman (seen below), the widow of John Vardemann, who had died in January of 1918. (Lovie’s sister Stella was the grandmother of Phyllis Hayden). Lovie was the daughter of George F. and Phyllis (Abington) Luckett. He was a wonderful stepfather to her two sons, John (Nov 11, 1910-June 17, 1976) and George Vardeman (July 25, 1915-November 10-1984). In their later years Howard and Mary lived with her son George, north of O’Fallon near the town of St. Paul in Cuivre Township. They were members of the Cravens Methodist Church next to the black school at the corner of Elm and Sonderen. Howard was quietly buried in Sage Chapel Cemetery when he died.
On August 20th, in 1881, Mahala (Keithly) and her husband Jasper Costlio had transferred to the Trustees of an African Methodist Episcopal Church for the use by the Conference, one acre of land, which became known as Sage Chapel Cemetery. This was done so that the former slaves of Samuel Keithly could continue to be buried in this cemetery. That same deed conveyed a one-half acre parcel on Sonderen Street to be used for a church known as Sage’s Chapel. The members of Cravens Methodist, and Wishwell Baptist, also located on Sonderen Street, also used this cemetery to bury their families. None of these churches or their records exist anymore. Sage Chapel Cemetery is a former African American community cemetery that is maintained by the City of O’Fallon, Missouri, located at 8500 Veterans Memorial Parkway. It has 117 documented burials of which only 37 have headstones, of these we know that 17 were born enslaved. (2018) May they rest in peace “As long as a name can be spoken, that person shall not be forgotten.”
Howard Morris’ stone was replaced on August 12 of 2017, and the family given full military honors at the ceremony at Sage Chapel Cemetery.
Photos of the Howard Morris Ceremony by Dorris Keeven-Franke and of the Howard Morris tombstones by Jim Frain.
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.
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.
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.
On August 12, 2017 the O’Fallon community, V.F.W. Post 5077,City Officials and relatives came together to honor World War I Veteran Howard I. Morris with a new headstone.
Photos of the day’s events
Howard I. Morris was born 8th of October 1889 in Lincoln County to Shedrack and Lovey Morris. When he died on April 29, 1957 he was a grain farmer near O’Fallon and a member of the Craven M.E. Church. He served as a Private in the 65th Pioneers Infantry during World War I.