According to the 1910 Kentucky census, 208,084 residents age 10 and over were illiterate. The more rural the area, the greater the percentage of folks who were crippled by their inability to sign their name, read a document or write a letter. This skill deficit left an open door for companies harvesting natural resources to take advantage of landowners who signed away rights and agreed to unfair conditions because they could not read the contract offered them.
In 1911, Cora Wilson Stewart decided to do something about it. Serving in Rowan County as the first female superintendent of education, she was already in a position of influence, and her background as an elementary school teacher gave rise to her passion for literacy. Understanding that farm families worked long days in the fields, she created what she dubbed “moonlight schools,” hoping that a handful of eager-to-learn adults would traverse the wagon trails to the 50 participating schoolhouses by moonlight to learn to read and write.
Shockingly, over 1,200 men and women came on the first night alone! The schools were so successful that within two years, illiteracy was virtually eradicated in Rowan County, and the movement quickly spread to 18 other states.
Stewart’s success led to her role as the first woman president of the Kentucky Education Association, director of the National Illiteracy Crusade and chairperson of President Hoover’s Commission on Illiteracy, 1929–1933.
Suzanne Woods Fisher weaves Stewart’s true story into The Moonlight School, a fictitious retelling of this groundbreaking concept. In addition to being granted a front row seat to the birth of a movement, readers will also experience, through Stewart’s visiting cousin Lucy’s eyes, the harsh poverty faced by an illiterate population. Just as Lucy was inexplicably drawn to these people, readers will be drawn into Lucy’s journey to finding purpose for her future and closure to her past.
Fisher notes that in 2019, about a fourth of the nation’s adults “said they had not read or completed a single book in the previous year.” Like Stewart, she encourages everyone, “Please read, and keep on reading, and encourage others to read! It makes a difference.”
The Moonlight School (Revell, $15.99) can be ordered through local booksellers or on Amazon.com.
To see photos of Cora Wilson Stewart’s moonlight schools and read more about her popularity in Kentucky and across the nation, visit www.appalachianhistory.net and search “Kentucky’s moonlight schools.”
Fisher, bestselling author of more than 30 books, loves to connect with her readers. Find her on Facebook or Instagram, or visit www.suzannewoodsfisher.com.