Articles & Stories
Kentucky Explorer
October 2001

By The Light Of The Moon, Shy Kentuckians Were Taught To Read
Cora Stewart Carried Lamp Of Learning Over The Hills And Far Away


Editor's Note: Cora Wilson Stewart (1875-1958) was an outstanding Kentucky educator from the community of Farmers in Rowan County. Her novel idea of the "Moonlight School," which she started in 1911, brought her national fame. Instead of children, the school was opened for uneducated adults and held at night. It was so successful that many such schools were soon opened across the United States.

Author Unknown - 1931

The "Moonlight Lady of Bloody Rowan," God bless her. For in the light of the moon, Cora Wilson Stewart taught the shy grown-ups to read and write. No longer were they ashamed to acknowledge that they could only make their mark.

John Willis, for instance, a lumbering giant of a man, with gnarled and knotty hands gripping paper and a pen, his massive brown face furrowed with the effort, can trace his name, John Willis. For the first time in his 56 years, he has written his own name, and he proudly holds up the piece of paper for all the class to see.

In his class, or in similar classes in the "moonlight schools" started by Mrs. Stewart, you can find pupils from 18 to 80 and over, getting their "larnin'," all because Mrs. Stewart had a vision and held to it with the grim tenacity of a pioneer.

That is what she is, a pioneer of education among the descendants of the pioneers, who broke the trail in the woods, in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas.

Over the hills and far away she carried the lamp of learning. She set it on the ridge and in the hollows, way back from the roads, where the razorback dug for acorns, and necessity was the great law.

"All over the country, during the past ten years," as Miss J. A. Benschoten tells the engaging story in The World's Work, "the drama of John Willis and his thousands of counterparts has been enacted. The stages have been set, for the most part, in little schoolhouses in sparsely settled sections."

The story of these moonlight schools is familiar to many, perhaps; but it is one of those romances of struggle in a fallow field which easily bears repeating, especially since it is an effort which has brought forth so much good fruit, and is still bearing. Miss Benschoten recites:

"The 'moonlight schools' were started in 1911 in Rowan County, Kentucky, by the 'moonlight lady,' Cora Wilson Stewart.

"Mrs. Stewart was a daughter of the county, born and bred in 'bloody Rowan;' so called in the old days because of the feuds which set neighbor against neighbor and family against family. Her parents, themselves well-read, knew the value of an education. At 16, Cora Wilson was a teacher and in charge of the family campaign, which had as its object professional training for each of a large flock of younger brothers and sisters. Mrs. Wilson was a good teacher. Moreover, she knew what hardships lay in the path of every child who attended her school and the schools of her associates in the county.

"She knew the long and difficult trails, the swollen streams, and the weary miles that had to be traversed afoot or on horseback before the school could be reached. In a few years she was Rowan County's first woman superintendent of schools.

"Then, with all the county teachers under her jurisdiction, and with every possible mountain child in school, Cora Wilson (then Mrs. Stewart) began to realize the crying need of the parents.

"There were mothers who could not write to children grown and living in other states, mothers who could not read the letters they received, and who walked miles to bring these letters to Miss Cora to open and answer for them.

"There were middle-aged men who would give anything to be able to read a newspaper.

"There were young men laboring on the mountain farms or trapping animals for distant markets who came to her to write the letters necessary to carry on business transactions. Many of Rowan County's common schools were of recent origin, and numbers of persons from 18 to 20 years old had had no opportunity to attend one during earlier years."

Mrs. Stewart conceived an idea. She laid it before the county teachers. They volunteered in a body, and we read:

"On Labor Day of 1911, they canvassed their districts. It was thought that perhaps about 300 adults might be enrolled for a short session of classes in reading and writing, to be held during the moonlight nights of the fall and winter months. The roads would be too difficult to travel in the dark of the moon.

"Folks who could already read and write were invited to come, too. They could help the beginning pupils.

"Three-hundred?

"More than four times that number turned out on the night the first class opened. Practically the complete roll of the illiterate in Rowan County!

"The enthusiasm continued. The pupils worked hard,as, of course, did the teachers.

"Children helped their fathers and mothers, family antagonisms of long standing faded away as neighbors shared the same bench and read from the same book.

"How they all hungered and thirsted to learn! How they worked to make their writing more perfect, leaning to the task over desks built for their children. What happiness they knew when they wrote their first letters to the teacher, to faraway relatives, to a son or daughter, whose surprise and joy of a letter from mother or father was fondly imagined.

"The second year the moonlight schools grew. More than 1,600 attended the classes in Rowan County, and the contagion began to creep over the borders into surrounding counties.

"By the third year classes were established all over Kentucky and in many sections of Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, and other states.

"Then followed interest on the part of governors and legislative bodies. National organizations originally formed for other projects, turned their attention to advancing the work begun in Rowan County. There had been health crusades and cleanliness campaigns, but somehow no one had ever thought of just teaching people to read and write.

"Those who have learned to read and write in the natural course of events may find it hard to imagine the thrill that came to these people, when they could form strange characters into words, write letters, and read letters sent to them. Late in life the unexpected had happened; the impossible had been achieved. By the light of their fires and kerosene lamps, in the long evenings, when the shadows fell early on the ridge and slipped swiftly down into the hollows, they could open the vast store of treasure that lies in papers, books, and magazines."

From the first, Miss Benschoten tells us, practically all the workers have served without pay. Mrs. Stewart carried her idea abroad; counties and states began to appropriate money for the moonlight schools. Then, about a year ago, we read Julius Rosenwald, the Jewish philanthropist, became interested, with the result that the trustees of the Rosenwald Fund in Chicago appropriated $200,000 to advance the project.

The whole work which Mrs. Stewart began is dramatic to review, says the writer; and she goes on to tell us how this lamp, lit in the darkness of Rowan County, spread its beams so that the attention of the nation became focused on its light.

Ten years ago, we are told, there was not a single statute in our legislative annals which had any reference to illiteracy. Ten years ago, and almost up to the immediate present (1931), 6% of our citizens were unable to read or write, as compared with only .05% of German citizens in a like unfortunate condition. Indeed, the United States, richest nation in the world, has long stood tenth from the top of the list in illiteracy rating. Only a little while ago there were 5,000,000 illiterate Americans.

Then President Hoover entrusted to Secretary Wilbur the task of appointing a commission to take up the drive against illiteracy, and Mrs. Cora Wilson Stewart is now designated director of the National Illiteracy Commission.

When Miss Benschoten visited her in her office, next to Secretary Wilbur's, she showed Miss Benschoten a package of letters from the members of a mountain class in Tennessee, who had learned to read and write last summer.

As she read one after another, a mist came before her eyes, "and," says the writer, "one saw, not the official director, but the 'moonlight lady' of Rowan County, who thought nothing of riding 10 or 15 miles through the mountains to visit one of the night classes, and who still thinks nothing of it." To conclude:

"She visits, on the night of opening, or soon afterward, as many of the new schools as she can within a day's journey of headquarters. Often, she goes for a period to distant states where work is being started.

"The pupils love to write to her, and they write to Secretary Wilbur to thank him, quite simply, for their books, for their classes, and for the chance to learn. To the writer of such letter there goes a note of reply, often commending the progress already made, and encouraging the pupil to further effort.

"Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana are the four states which led in the campaign made to reduce illiteracy before the federal census takers started their rounds in April 1930.

"Georgia enrolled and taught 40,848 adults; Alabama taught 41,726; South Carolina taught 49,145; and Louisiana taught 108,351.

"In these four states alone 240,070 illiterates were taught to read and write. This is of itself a tremendous achievement, to say nothing of the thousands in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and other states that were reached in the campaign.

"The war against American illiteracy is not over. It is, in fact, only very well-begun. But there is no cessation of hostilities on the part of Cora Wilson Stewart and her cohorts. Already they are planning another great drive against the foe, a drive which has for its objective the searching out of every illiterate man or woman remaining in these United States.

"To these people there must be given at least the chance to learn."

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