SPOTLIGHT: Cora Wilson Stewart, education pioneer

Working all day leaves little time for education. For those struggling in the impoverished areas of Appalachia, literacy was on the back burner. One woman’s vision allowed people to gain the education that they deserved without sacrificing their livelihoods.

Cora Wilson Stewart was born on January 17, 1875 in Farmers, Kentucky, just outside of Morehead. She attended Morehead Normal School (later Morehead State University) and the University of Kentucky. She began her teaching career at twenty years old in Rowan County, where she grew up. It wasn’t long before she gained a reputation as an exceptional teacher and after just six years of working in education was elected Rowan County school superintendent. In 1909, she was re-elected and continued to be recognized for her triumphs in education.

Recognizing that illiteracy was a problem, she decided to do something about it. She founded the Moonlight Schools in 1911 as an experiment to combat illiteracy. Classes were held for adults in the one-room schoolhouses that were filled with learning children by day. The students made their way to the schools on nights where light from the moon would guide them and teachers volunteered their time and talents.

The Moonlight Schools opened on September 5, 1911. Stewart later called this first night “the brightest moonlit night the world has ever seen.”  1200 people, ranging in age from 18 to 86, showed up at the 50 schools on that September night. One of the Moonlight Schools sat for many years on the campus of Morehead State University and has been moved to a more central location near the Morehead Tourism center.

She was also a delegate to the 1920 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, and was nominated for President of the United States. In 1923 Stewart was elected to the executive committee of the National Education Association. Six years later President Herbert Hoover named her to chair the executive committee of the National Advisory Committee on Illiteracy. In 1924, for example,she received Pictorial Review‘s $5,000 achievement prize for her contribution to human welfare, and in 1930 she accepted the Ella Flagg Young Medal for distinguished service in the field of education. Accolades were well-deserved.

Cora Wilson Stewart was a trail-blazing individual. She fought for the right for all people to get the  education that they deserved and was elected first female president of the Kentucky Education Association. Her legacy lives on in the spirit of education.

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