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.