Cora Wilson Stewart on Appalachian Poverty


"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)


Cora Wilson Stewart


This photo presents Cora Wilson Stewart in all her Edwardian propriety. A gifted, but a difficult person, Cora Wilson Stewart was born in Farmers, Kentucky in 1875 and attended Morehead Normal School (later Morehead State University) and the University of Kentucky. She taught school in Rowan County and in 1901, at the age of 26, was elected to the position of county school superintendent. She was reelected in 1909. In 1911, she founded the Moonlight School movement in Rowan County to educate adult illiterates during the evenings. Her efforts were successful resulting in more than 1200 adults learning basic reading and writing skills. Stewart 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 as chairperson of President Hoover's Commission on Illiteracy. 

Cora’s private life was not as successful as her public one. At the age of twenty, she married Ulysses Grant Carey on June 4, 1895. He was the son of the owner of the Gault Hotel in Morehead where Cora's father had his medical office. After three years, Carey and Wilson were divorced on June 9, 1898. They had no children.


On September 2, 1902, less than a year after her election and four years after her divorce, she married Alexander Thomas Stewart, a son of William G. and Elizabeth Patton Stewart, and a grandson of William Charlie and Mary Polly Stewart. Like her prior marriage to Carey, her union to Alexander proved a rocky road. They were divorced on March 7, 1904 but remarried three months later on June 22, 1904. In 1907, they had their only child, William Holley Stewart (pictured on the right). But the little Stewart’s life was short and he died on June 7, 1908 and was buried in the Lee Cemetery in Morehead. Two years later, Cora and Alexander were divorced on June 8, 1910.


Although she is justly lauded for her achievements in education, she was not a very appealing partner. Although some writers blame Alexander for her failed second marriage, the evidence suggests that neither party was without fault. The evidence reflects that he drank too much in his youth. He served as a City Judge in Morehead. He may have resented Cora's achievements and could not have welcomed her absences from their home due to her public responsibilities.


A lawyer, he moved to Stanton, Kentucky after he divorced Cora, and raised a large family in domestic bliss with his second wife, Clemma Lacy, for the next forty five years until his death in 1956. They raised their five children, all of whom graduated from college and became educators in colleges and universities throughout the country. In Stanton, he served as county attorney and was an active member of the Stanton Christian Church. He loved to recite poetry and was an avid reader.


Unlike, Alexander's happy years following his new marriage, Cora died alone in North Carolina virtually unknown and forgotten at the time of her death for her good public deeds. That fact leaves one saddened.


Recently, I discovered that Cora was a great photographer, an avocation I share with her. Her photographs were placed on the internet at the University of Kentucky web site. See Collection. Not surprisingly, many of her photographs were taken of her native Rowan County. These photographs are a treasure and preserve for us a visual portrait of the county at the end of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. See Photo Index for user friend version of her photographs of Rowan County.


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