Cora Wilson Stewart and the “Moonlight Schools”

Published 6:35 pm Monday, December 6, 2021

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December 2nd is an auspicious day for Tryon, North Carolina.

On that day in 1958, Stewart, 83, died, and was buried here in Polk Memorial Gardens. I used to dream of coming here and finding her grave and recently, thanks to my friend and colleague Liz Dicey who lives here, we did. I had spent years studying Stewart’s life and work, as a professor at Morehead State University where I taught in the College of Education, and Stewart was legend. One of the things that drew me to MSU after I’d completed my doctorate, was “Little Brushy” the one-room schoolhouse placed on the campus and which was one of the many schools that for the three nights of the full moon, became adult learning centers known as the Moonlight School. I began teaching in that school house on the night of the full moon, with my students from Foundations of Reading and graduate students in Reading in the Content Areas, to give an embodied experience of this time. 

A student would ring the bell outside as we began and I would play the pump organ “My Country T’is of Thee” to begin, as she would. Stewart brilliantly engaged students from 18-89 years old with innovative methods, writing books that were about their lives, such as “The Country Reader” and “Mother’s First Book” and “The Soldier’s Book”. Thankfully these were still in the archives at the university. She used kinesthetic ways to learn to write their name by pressing into a template they then traced. Stewart’s books are available now online, and the story of her life is in a book written by the former head of the History department at MSU, Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin, titled, “Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight Schools” (2006).

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 Anyone interested to learn more will find a cache of fascinating information about this extraordinary woman who not only brought literacy into the hills of eastern Kentucky but the world—the Moonlight School movement spread throughout the country and into Europe. She became the first woman Superintendent of Schools in Kentucky, Chairman of the Commission of the National Education Association and much more.  At the end of her life Cora Wilson Stewart went to live with her sister, and later wanted to come here to North Carolina. It was her brother-in-law who paid to have her buried here.


Submitted by Dr. Mattie M. Decker