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Photos courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections, the Cora Wilson Stewart Photographic Collection, ca. 1900-1940
A Moonlight School at Mt. Hebron, Alabama
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Photos courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections, the Cora Wilson Stewart Photographic Collection, ca. 1900-1940
Cora Wilson Stewart
For a time in the early part of the 20th century, Kentucky was center stage for national educational reform, and not in a “Thank God for Mississippi” sort of way. Governors across the country, and even U.S. presidents, were taking note of an ascendant, grassroots Progressive Era campaign that was marching out of the Rowan County backwoods, bent on eradicating illiteracy. Everybody was paying particular attention to the movement’s firebrand leader, “Miss Cora” Wilson Stewart, who felt it was her God-given destiny to empower those who couldn’t read, especially adults, with the gift of the written word.
For the 23 years that Stewart and a large network of dedicated volunteer teachers administered Moonlight Schools—so called because of their after-hours operations—first in Kentucky and eventually in 18 other states, some 700,000 Americans, including 100,000 Kentuckians, learned fundamental reading and writing skills. Stewart began her career as a 15-year-old teacher in a one-room Rowan County schoolhouse and moved with voracious volition from state to national prominence as a highly effective organizer and impassioned champion to defeat illiteracy, ultimately chairing the executive committee for the NationalAdvisory Committee on Illiteracy, appointed by President Herbert Hoover.
But like many crusades for noble causes, Stewart’s battle against adult illiteracy, or at least her poignant exposure to it, had bloody beginnings. The Rowan County War erupted in 1884 when Cora was 9 years old and quickly engulfed nearly everybody in the county. Though not as notorious or as prolonged as the folkloric Hatfield and McCoy feud a few years earlier, the Martin-Tolliver feud, which centered in Morehead, was the deadliest in the state, with 20 people murdered and 16 wounded before fighting stopped in 1887—after an hours-long shootout. Virtually everybody in Rowan County lined up with the Martins or the Tollivers, but Cora’s family avoided the skirmish, at least head-on; her father, Dr. Jeremiah Wilson, treated the wounded on both sides. The violence made a lasting impression on Cora, and she later would invoke images of her war-torn town during fiery speeches decrying the perils of an uneducated populace, but it also had a more immediate influence on her life.The conflict had dire effects on the town: Local business was devastated as the population dropped from 700 in 1885 to 296 in 1887, with many people fleeing the area fearing for their safety or searching for work elsewhere. Raised in a family that valued community service and education, Cora, in her teenage years, served as a type of literary interpreter for those in and around Morehead who couldn’t read. One of the most frequently requested items she was asked to read were letters, especially correspondence from former Morehead citizens who had left as a result of the Rowan County War. “She was seeing the effects of the lack of schooling on people, and it made her want to do something that went beyond the school system,” said Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin, who taught at Morehead State University for 24 years and wrote the 2006 book Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight Schools: Fighting for Literacy in America. Morehead State University also has its roots in the Rowan County War. In response to the lawlessness in Morehead, the Kentucky General Assembly revoked the city’s charter. Trying to clean up its reputation with the state and create more educational opportunities in the hope of helping stabilize the area, the Kentucky Christian Ministry Society founded the Morehead Normal School, a teacher-training facility that eventually, after a number of incarnations, would become Morehead State University. Morehead Normal was founded in 1887 and was administered by the Christian Woman’s Board of Missions, in which all the women in Cora’s family were involved. Cora attended Morehead Normal for two years and even taught there at one time early in her career.From an early age, Cora knew she wanted to be a teacher, and as a teenager, she took a job as an instructor in a one-room schoolhouse in Morehead. After a failed marriage in 1895—the first of two (or three—she remarried her second husband, but the do-over didn’t take either, though she did retain her married name of Stewart)—she moved to Lexington and enrolled in the Commercial College of Kentucky University, becoming the institution’s first female faculty member after completing her studies. Following the death of her mother, Stewart returned to Morehead in 1901 and became a candidate for county school superintendent at the urging of her brother, Bunyan Spratt Wilson, who previously had been elected as Morehead’s first mayor after graduating first in his class at University of Louisville School of Law. Stewart won by a “comfortable margin,” Baldwin writes, and became the first female elected superintendent in Rowan County.Stewart executed her position with aplomb, cultivating relationships with other superintendents, teachers, school administrators, newspaper editors and political figures, all while visiting the 52 schools within the county under her jurisdiction. During speeches and lectures she delivered at churches, civic meetings or just about anywhere else that would lend her an audience, Stewart began to articulate her views on education and how it could better all aspects of society. Her powerful message and rhetorical skills made her a popular presenter and an able candidate for president of the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) about a decade later.As she dealt with parents of schoolchildren across the state as KEA president (another “first woman” notch for Stewart), the scourge of illiteracy was palpable. Not only could so many people not read, but Stewart also noticed a correlation between illiteracy and a lack of civic, social and religious engagement. She began to realize that as the superintendent in Rowan County, she didn’t serve just children, but also adults. However, in rural areas throughout the country—certainly in Kentucky—there was a regional stigma associated with education, which she would have to nullify.“She felt she needed to change the attitudes so that people would realize the value of education and that it wasn’t the case of in this part of the country what we call ‘getting above your raising,’ ” Baldwin said. “Too big for your britches, that kind of stuff. So, in many ways, she was a very practical and wise woman, in addition to being a bit of a visionary.” She presented literacy not as an elitist pursuit to which all should aspire simply on principle but as a tool the industrious mountaineers of Appalachia could use to fix their way toward prosperity in an evolving modern society. The plan was to open the schoolhouses she administered in the evening hours for adult education, and she used her position as superintendent to secure the facilities and goad her teachers into volunteering.To spread the word of the Moonlight Schools program, as it became known, and its benefits to the community, Stewart also proved to be a marketing marvel. After she got the teachers on board, she got other influential stakeholders and community leaders involved in promoting the literacy movement. Editors were interested because more people could read the newspaper. Ministers were interested because more people could read the Bible and hymn books. Shopkeepers were interested because it would enable more people to participate in the modern economy.“All of this was pre-technology. That’s another thing that’s fascinating about it,” Baldwin said. “It wasn’t like she could call her neighbors on the phone.”As a branding device, Stewart selected Sept. 5, 1911, for the opening night of class, since a full moon was scheduled for the evening (the moonlight would help attendees see their way to and from the schoolhouses). She told her network of teachers to prepare for maybe three or four students per location, around 150 countywide. About 1,200 students came to the first session, ranging in age from 18 to 85, nearly a third of the county’s entire population.While the robust response was a welcome surprise, the deluge of participation also presented the Moonlight Schools with some logistical problems—namely, the need for more teachers—and Stewart filled the ranks from her associations in various women’s groups.Another dilemma was the lack of appropriate teaching materials. Knowing adults might find lesson plans intended for young minds to be insulting, Stewart began producing primers for adult learners called “Country Life Readers.”“They were based on simple issues—things like farming, household maintenance, hygiene. So she was teaching skills as well as how to read and write,” Baldwin said.The format for the schools was easily exportable, and Stewart quickly went on a statewide campaign in 1912, touting the need for other counties to initiate their own Moonlight Schools. Buttressed by favorable newspaper coverage, especially in the Lexington Herald, the program caught on quickly, and soon most counties had similar evening courses.At the invitation of Lexington City Schools Superintendent and Southern Educational Association President M.A. Cassidy, Stewart delivered a lecture on her innovative program to the organization’s annual conference in Houston, which gave Moonlight Schools traction on the national stage, enabling the movement to sweep through nearly 20 states along with other Progressive Era ideals.During the following years, Stewart worked tirelessly to secure resources for the schools and furthered her influence on education within the state and nation. She lobbied the state legislature to create the Kentucky Illiteracy Commission (KIC) in 1914, and Gov. James McCreary, during his second stint in the position, appointed her chairman, through which she could better administer the Moonlight Schools. That same year, she addressed the Congressional House Committee on Education in Washington, D.C.Stewart was being recognized not only as a freewheeling educational reformer but also as a powerful political force, especially after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Active in the Democratic Party in Kentucky, she was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1920. As a way to show their gratitude and recognize her efforts to fight illiteracy, Stewart’s fellow Kentucky delegates cast one symbolic vote for her as their nominee for president. (The 1920 Democratic ticket ended up being Ohio Gov. James Cox for president and Franklin D. Roosevelt for vice president.)Unfortunately, her political zeal did not endear her to those on the other side of the political spectrum. Further, some in the state had grown tired of Stewart’s speeches and lectures portraying Kentucky to be something akin to the illiteracy capital of the world.“She took great pride in her home state’s leadership in the illiteracy movement and used the KIC as a model for other states to emulate, but by calling attention to widespread illiteracy in the Kentucky mountains and elsewhere,” Baldwin writes, “she held the commonwealth up to a national scrutiny that many politicians and school leaders at home found uncomfortable.”Republican Gov. Edwin P. Morrow, under the influence of Kentucky’s new Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction George Colvin, pushed through legislation that defunded the KIC, which didn’t end the Moonlight Schools but dealt an emotional blow to Stewart, at least in her home state.Leveraging her considerable influence and political network, Stewart continued her crusade to fight illiteracy at the national level through a variety of leadership positions at organizations such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National Education Association in Washington. In this capacity, Stewart traveled throughout the country and even the world attending educational conferences, but she became frustrated by the red tape and bureaucracy, and compromise, with which she had to work during the ’20s.Though she enjoyed several prominent appointments and recognitions, including chairmanship of President Hoover’s Commission on Illiteracy late in the decade, the spirit of the Progressive Era and Stewart’s insistence on a grassroots approach to education were becoming eclipsed by new methods and ideas, especially among administrators who felt school teachers should receive formal training.“Ultimately, as the education profession is becoming more professionalized, as all professions were at that time, she ends up being marginalized because she only had what’s called a common-school education,” Baldwin said. “At that time, educators were pushing for college training for teachers, and as that was beginning to happen, people said that Stewart was just a rural schoolmarm. She becomes at odds with the education profession because they wanted trained teachers; they didn’t want volunteers teaching in the small schools. They wanted people trained in adult literacy.”The Great Depression hurt Stewart’s cause as well, since a lot of her funding ran dry. Stewart became disillusioned and her mission ended in 1933 when she took a New Deal job with the Federal Housing Administration.Swapping education for salvation, Stewart found a new calling with the Oxford Group, a religious association with worldwide popularity in the 1930s. She passed away in 1958 in North Carolina.Though Stewart’s work with the Moonlight Schools is largely overlooked today, Baldwin thinks that the spirit behind Miss Cora’s efforts hasn’t faded.“Looking at the big picture, one of the lasting legacies of the Moonlight movement is highlighting the importance of community involvement,” she said. “Whether somebody is trained or educated, whatever their personal skills may be, anybody can make a difference in bettering the community. And I think that message endures today.”