We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky's Moonlight Schools

Fighting for Literacy in America

Yvonne Baldwin

Publication Year: 2006

The first woman elected superintendent of schools in Rowan County, Kentucky, Cora Wilson Stewart (1875–1958) realized that a major key to overcoming the illiteracy that plagued her community was to educate adult illiterates. To combat this problem, Stewart opened up her schools to adults during moonlit evenings in the winter of 1911. The result was the creation of the Moonlight Schools, a grassroots movement dedicated to eliminating illiteracy in one generation. Following Stewart’s lead, educators across the nation began to develop similar literacy programs; within a few years, Moonlight Schools had emerged in Minnesota, South Carolina, and other states. Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight Schools examines these institutions and analyzes Stewart’s role in shaping education at the state and national levels. To improve their literacy, Moonlight students learned first to write their names and then advanced to practical lessons about everyday life. Stewart wrote reading primers for classroom use, designing them for rural people, soldiers, Native Americans, prisoners, and mothers. Each set of readers focused on the knowledge that individuals in the target group needed to acquire to be better citizens within their community. The reading lessons also emphasized the importance of patriotism, civic responsibility, Christian morality, heath, and social progress. Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin explores the “elusive line between myth and reality” that existed in the rhetoric Stewart employed in order to accomplish her crusade. As did many educators engaged in benevolent work during the Progressive Era, Stewart sometimes romanticized the plight of her pupils and overstated her successes. As she traveled to lecture about the program in other states interested in addressing the problem of illiteracy, she often reported that the Moonlight Schools took one mountain community in Kentucky “from moonshine and bullets to lemonade and Bibles.” All rhetoric aside, the inclusive Moonlight Schools ultimately taught thousands of Americans in many under-served communities across the nation how to read and write. Despite the many successes of her programs, when Stewart retired in 1932, the crusade against adult illiteracy had yet to be won. Cora Wilson Stewart presents the story of a true pioneer in adult literacy and an outspoken advocate of women’s political and professional participation and leadership. Her methods continue to influence literacy programs and adult education policy and practice.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.6 MB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (26.5 KB)

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (17.0 KB)
pp. vii-ix

This book analyzes the life and work of Cora Wilson Stewart, a Progressive Era reformer who sought to eliminate adult illiteracy in a single generation, a goal she believed would also improve the quality of life in rural America. It illustrates both the strengths and the limitations of a grassroots movement, examines the politicization...

read more

Introduction: Creating “Miss Cora”

pdf iconDownload PDF (693.1 KB)
pp. 1-6

Cora Wilson was born in 1875 in rural eastern Kentucky. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a physician, she grew up in fairly modest circumstances. In an era when education and economic or social status largely...

read more

1. The Making of a Reformer

pdf iconDownload PDF (704.5 KB)
pp. 7-36

Born on 17 January 1875, on a small farm on the banks of Sycamore Creek in rural Montgomery County, the sturdy, dark-eyed third child of Jeremiah Wilson and his twenty-five-year-old wife, Ann Halley Wilson, was said to be like her mother, although perhaps more headstrong...

read more

2. The Moonlight Campaign

pdf iconDownload PDF (678.2 KB)
pp. 37-69

When Cora Wilson Stewart celebrated her thirty-sixth birthday in January 1911, her only child was dead and her marriage was over, but she believed she had found the work God intended her to do, and with characteristic determination, she began. Having given the issue of illiteracy...

read more

3. Moonlight Schools and Pregressivism

pdf iconDownload PDF (715.3 KB)
pp. 70-101

Kentucky lawmakers had created the Kentucky Illiteracy Commission in 1914 largely because of Stewart’s emphasis on voluntarism and the relatively few demands her plan to eliminate illiteracy made on the state. Many of the legislators also supported the ideals of self-improvement, expanded literacy, and its promised economic benefits, although...

read more

4. Nationalizing the Illiteracy Campaign

pdf iconDownload PDF (642.2 KB)
pp. 102-132

In 1917 the escalating conflict in Europe and U.S. preparedness provided a new focus for the illiteracy work and gave Stewart renewed hope for legislative appropriations in her home state. She turned her attention to the creation of programs for the state’s draftage men, whom...

Photo insert

pdf iconDownload PDF (22.0 MB)

read more

5. The National Crusade against Illiteracy

pdf iconDownload PDF (629.7 KB)
pp. 133-162

Progressive Era reformers often began their campaigns in their own communities, frequently through voluntary associations, and public roles for women enlarged as these groups consolidated, federated, and became increasingly adept at influencing politics at local, state, and national...

read more

6. A New Vision

pdf iconDownload PDF (610.2 KB)
pp. 163-183

Suspicious of the motives and methods of the adult education “technique people” whose power and influence in the U.S. Department of Education and the NEA were beginning to exceed her own, and disillusioned and angered by attacks on her leadership of the literacy work, Cora Wilson,...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (662.9 KB)
pp. 184-193

In a 1910 letter, Mattie Dalton wrote to her dear friend Cora Wilson Stewart, “Tell me the character of a man’s God, and you tell me the character of the man.”1 Certainly Stewart’s perception of God and his mission for her on earth shaped her life and work and determined her character...


pdf iconDownload PDF (126.3 KB)
pp. 194-232


pdf iconDownload PDF (54.3 KB)
pp. 233-244


pdf iconDownload PDF (30.0 KB)
pp. 245-248

E-ISBN-13: 9780813171654
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813123783

Page Count: 270
Publication Year: 2006