Moonlight Schools

The Moonlight Schools of Kentucky and Cora Wilson Stewart

Cora Stewart was a person of vision and one of the most determined, most capable people in early American literacy history. One evening in 1911 she opened the doors of the Little Brushy schoolhouse in Rowan County Kentucky.

Rowan County was the poorest county in Kentucky at the time. Her idea was when the moon was shining, adults were to come down from the hills and up from the “Kentucky hollers” to learn to read and write in the local school houses.

Stewart had hoped that perhaps 150 adults would come. Instead, 1,200 enrolled in the first year; 1,600 the second; and, by 1913, no fewer than 25 counties had started Moonlight Schools for adult learners.

Within four years, Alabama had established “Adult Schools”; South Carolina had started “Lay-By Schools”; the Community Schools appeared in North Carolina; and “Schools for Grown-Ups” were created in Georgia. All of these were based on the Kentucky model.

By 1914, Oklahoma had not only established night schools for literacy, but offered credit in its Normal Schools for adult education teachers. Washington State created adult night schools on the Kentucky model in 1915, as did Minnesota and New Mexico.

According to historian Wanda Cook, this was the official beginning of adult literacy education in America.

Today Cora Wilson Stewart’s hand can be seen in every aspect of literacy programs across the U.S.A. yet, few know her name.

At age 15, Stewart began teaching in the Morehead Public School. She had been repeatedly told by the community that “elderly folks were too self-conscious and embarrassed to go to night school”, but when a mother asked her for help to write to a daughter who had recently moved to Chicago; when a middle-aged man “with tears in his eyes,” begged to be helped to learn to read so he could feel “whole,” and an aspiring local musician asked her to teach him to write, she turned to adult literacy education.

Stewart included Native Indians and African American adults in the literacy movement, a step way ahead of its time. In the years of the First World War, Stewart was asked to be advisor to the U.S. army on literacy. She not only created a learning program for them, she wrote The Soldier’s First Book so countless soldiers in the trenches could write home for the first time and read the letters they received.

Stewart also fought to have what today would be ESL programs for new immigrants. She was indeed a driving force in the literacy movement.

The Modern Day Legend

The Modern Day Legend of Native Literacy at Nogojiwanong
(Peterborough, where the rushing waters meet)

Once not so very long ago, a Circle of learned Anishnabe Kwe were offered tobacco by a young man seeking their wisdom. There was something weighing on his heart regarding many of his people and he longed to find a solution.

The heaviness on his heart was for the people who were missing something. Those who needed something very important in their lives. They hadn’t finished school and their children weren’t going to either.

The Circle sent the young man to talk to many people about this and to write down what they said. They knew the ways of Queen’s Park, where the money grows on the trees.

The young man surveyed as many of the people as he could find. They said they longed to come to a place where Aboriginal people wanted to learn and would teach one another. The Circle decided the gathering place should be called the Learning Program because of what the people had said they wanted to happen there. The man at Queen’s Park said yes to this idea and sent the Circle a little bit of money for the gathering place.

Many snows came and went. After each snow, the time of renewal, something new took place. At first the people came to be teachers but there were no students. Then the students came looking for the teachers and there weren’t enough of them. Next the right number of students and teachers arrived at the same time. Each year after that was different too. What stayed the same was that the students didn’t think they had what they needed so they came seeking. It turned out they had much wisdom so they shared what they could to help the others. So many people came, more space was needed for them to discuss things and to learn from one another.

The Circle became the Council for the Learning Program. Some of the founding mothers had to move on and sent others in their places. The help that everyone gave each other lifted the heaviness off the hearts of many of the people.

The little bit of money sent by the man at Queen’s Park did not change. It seems the money trees at Queen’s Park were suffering from a blight that continues to this day. That did not stop the people who could always find ideas to keep the gathering place going.

So, to this day, the Native Learning Program at Nogojiwanong carries on as a place for Aboriginal people and their families and friends to gather, to learn and to teach. It is known by Anishnabe as far away as James Bay.


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