Sage Chapel Cemetery is being Nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. A hearing by the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (Agenda Here) to consider referral to the U.S. National Park Service will take place in the Lewis and Clark State Office Building, La Charrette Conference Room, 1101 Riverside Dr., Jefferson City, Missouri on August 10, 2018 at 10 a.m.. A Copy of the Nomination can be found here and this is a public meeting open to comment. This nomination is being made in behalf of all of those buried at Sage Chapel Cemetery and support is greatly appreciated.
Thomas Clarence was born in Kentucky in about 1877. He and his brother William were a Baptist family who had come north looking for work. Married and divorced he had worked many jobs, at the shoe factory, as a steelworker, and even as a carpenter. Previously he had lived in St. Louis, but had come to live with family in Gilmore, a railroad town in St. Charles County west of O’Fallon. He had been ill with pneumonia for over three months when he died of a lung hemorrhage on October 23, 1923. Served by the Keithly Funeral Home, he was laid to rest in Sage Chapel Cemetery.
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.”
Historic Sage Chapel Cemetery lies west of the V.F.W. Post 5077 on Veterans Memorial Parkway in O’Fallon, Missouri and was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places by Dorris Keeven-Franke, Justin Watkins, and Amber Cox. This early cemetery, comprised of 117 documented burials many of whom were former slaves was officially established by Trustees of an African-Methodist Episcopal Church in 1881. At that time Jefferson Franklin Sage was a Minister of the Gospel with the St. Charles A.M.E Conference. Today, only 37 burials still have headstones to document this cemetery and there are at least 80 additional burials, documented by research found in Death Certificates, newspapers and genealogical research. Other documentation found by local historians Mary Hogan Smith and Karolyn Terpstra has assisted the writers as well. On August 10, 2018, the nomination was heard at the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation meeting and given unanimous approval.
Watkins serves on the Board of the St. Charles County Historical Society and is head of the society’s Cemetery Committee. He received the Heritage Award for his “Baptists on a Mission” article in the St. Charles County Heritage. Watkins is also secretary of the board of the Ambassadors of Harmony, a barbershop harmony chorus, and wrote the chorus’ history for the chorus’ website in 2013.
Keeven-Franke is Executive Director of the Missouri Germans Consortium, serves as a member of O’Fallon’s Historic Preservation Commission (CLG). Curator for the St. Charles County Veterans Museum, and is an author, preservationist, and public historian.
Amber Cox is a National Register and Architectural Survey Missouri’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
The process of nominating the cemetery began in 2017, when an Eligibility Assessment was presented to the SHPO. The next step for Sage Chapel Cemetery began in December of 2017 with preparation of the actual nomination. According to the SHPO website “The National Register of Historic Places includes districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture. These resources contribute to an understanding of the historical and cultural foundations of the nation. Missouri, where the program is administered by the Department of Natural Resources’ State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), boasts more than 2,000 listings (= more than 35,000 individual resources) in the National Register, all nominations are reviewed at the state level by the SHPO staff and the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The Missouri Advisory Council is a body of preservation professionals and laypersons appointed by the Governor to review National Register nominations and provide input on preservation issues.”
The nomination was heard and approved by the Missouri Advisory Council on August 10, 2018 and went forward to the National Park Service (NPS). It was placed on the Register on November 13, 2018.
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.