Some would consider her the founder of Adult Literacy Education in the United States. Cora Wilson Stewart (1875-1958) was an elementary school teacher and county school superintendent in eastern Kentucky’s Rowan County who, in the fall of 1911, decided to open the classrooms in her district to adult pupils.
When the Moonlight Schools opened on September 5, 1911, adults were taught at night in the one-room schools in which children were taught by day. They were called “moonlight schools” because classes were held on nights when the moon cast enough light for students to see the footpaths and wagon trails they often followed for miles to reach the school. Teachers volunteered their time to teach at these schools.
Original caption reads: “‘Gladys Thompson’s Moonlight School'”; adults and a few children sitting or standing in a room with a potbellied stove, pictures of horses and Abraham Lincoln are hanging on the wall”.
“It was expected that the response would be slow, but more than 1,200 men and women from 18 to 86 years of age were enrolled the first evening,” said Stewart of the initial 50 schools in the program. “They came trooping over the hills and out of the hollows, some to add to the meager education received in the inadequate schools of their childhood, some to receive their first lessons in reading and writing.
“Among them were not alone illiterate farmers and their illiterate wives, sons, and daughters, but also illiterate merchants or storekeepers, illiterate ministers, and illiterate lumbermen. Mothers, bent with age, came that they might learn to read letters from absent sons and daughters, and that they might learn for the first time to write them.”
Stewart later called this first night “the brightest moonlit night the world has ever seen.”
Stewart was convinced that adults should not use the same materials as children to learn to read, so she developed for adult students The Rowan County Messenger, a newspaper with short sentences and lots of word repetition. In teaching writing, she concentrated first on teaching adults to write their own names, believing that this was a vital way of developing what we would today call self-esteem.
In 1912 the enrollment reached nearly 1,600 and the movement had spread to 8 or 10 other counties. Of these 1,600, “300 entered the school utterly unable to read and write at all, 300 were from those who had learned in September, 1911, and 1,000 were men and women of meager education.”
In 1914-15, it was estimated that 40,000 Kentucky adults had learned to read and write in moonlight schools. A Carrollton, KY woman wrote Stewart in 1914: “I wish to thank you for the Moonlight Schools. I have been going six nights and have learned to read and write. I am forty-three years old and have written my first letter to my mother, the next to you . . . Yours, Amanda McKinney.”
In 1915 Stewart published the Country Life Reader: First Book and the next year she published the Country Life Reader: Second Book. Both books featured functional materials from adult’s daily lives:
“This is dirty and ugly. The house needs paint. The porch is falling down. A lazy, shiftless family lives here.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know it from the house. Lazy, shiftless people live in dirty, ugly homes.”
From Country Life Readers by Cora Wilson Stewart (1915)
“Dear Friends,” she wrote on the last page of the first reader. “This little book was written especially for the dear boys and girls of the moonlight schools, not the youngest, perhaps, but the finest school children on earth . . . The preparation of this book has been truly a labor of love. If you have received any benefit from it, the author is fully repaid. “Yours sincerely, Cora Wilson Stewart”
Alabama and Mississippi adopted Stewart’s idea, and by 1916, adults in 18 states had been enrolled.
Cora Wilson Stewart was born in Farmers, KY and attended Morehead Normal School (later Morehead State University) and the University of Kentucky. Stewart began teaching in 1895 at age 20. During World War I she was concerned with Selective Service findings that some 700,000 men were totally illiterate, so she developed The Soldier’s First Book to teach military recruits to read. She was the first woman president of the Kentucky Education Association and in 1926, she was named director of the National Illiteracy Crusade.
From 1929-1933 she was named chairperson of President Hoover’s Commission on Illiteracy. She was active in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs as well. Stewart was also a delegate to the 1920 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, and was nominated for President of the United States.
Stewart’s private life was not as successful as her public one. She spent her last years in a home for the elderly in Tryon, NC, alone, with only enough resources to live. She had been married three times — twice to the same man. Her only child had died in infancy. Glaucoma had left her blind.
She died in December 1958 at age 83.
Sources: Statistics of Land-grant Colleges and Universities, by United States Office of Education, Office of Education, United States Govt. Print. Off., 1913
Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight Schools, by Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin, University Press of Kentucky, 2006