Kentucky by Heart: New book provides look at life of Rowan County’s first female school superintendent
One might not expect a San Francisco resident would have any serious understanding of life in Rowan County, Kentucky in the early 1900s, especially if they hadn’t lived there. But then one might not be familiar with Suzanne Woods Fisher, who authored the recently published book, The Moonlight School (Revell, Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021).
Her novel is an engaging retelling of the life of Cora Wilson Stewart, the first woman school superintendent in Rowan County, who later became the first woman president of the Kentucky Education Association. But what Stewart will forever be most known for is her 1911 establishment of “Moonlight Schools” in rural schoolhouses across the county, an effort to eradicate the problem of rampant illiteracy among adults. In the beginning, a relatively modest expectation of about 150 was expected, but it’s reported that over 1,200 adults showed up to attend the classes. Their ages ranged from age eighteen to eighty.
Fisher approaches her own story of Stewart’s endeavor through the point of view of Cora’s cousin, Lucy Wilson. Lucy departs her life of relative ease in Lexington for a planned six-month stint in Appalachian Rowan County to be Cora’s stenographer or one who travels from home to home through the hills, transcribing the spoken word and reading correspondence to the many who are illiterate. While doing so, she lives in a boarding house—and the entire endeavor is one which Lucy does not relish but agrees to do for six months.
Lucy finds working with uneducated mountain folk a severe challenge at first, with many seeing her and her cultured city ways as odd. But with time, she gains understanding and appreciation of those she gets to know, and a measure of community acceptance emerges toward her. She even learns to skillfully ride a horse with the help of Fin James, a smart but-not-interested-in-school young man who is romantically interested in Lucy (though it is unrequited). In the course of her time there, she encounters a couple of other potential suitors. Sadly, looming over her every being are the agonizing feelings of guilt for her negligence she displayed while losing track of her young sister while babysitting years before; the child is thought to be lost forever.
She also develops a close relationship with Cora, and when she is asked to support the opening of Moonlight Schools around the county, she is initially hesitant but soon joins in with an emerging passion. Fisher’s telling is craftily done, and though many of the details are fictional, the real story in Kentucky’s history becomes even more connected to us by her narrative.
I like how the author takes the last two chapters, called “So… What Happened Next?” and “Fact or Fiction?” to speak directly to the reader. She also includes nine discussion questions challenging one to reflect more deeply about the story and characters.
Here are some intriguing facts I learned through the book and other sources about Stewart and the system of adult literacy schools she championed:
• Moonlight Schools met Monday through Thursday evenings from seven to nine o’clock for six weeks, with instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, basic history, civics, health and sanitation, geography, home economics, agriculture, and horticulture.
• In two of those six-week sessions, students generally gained the ability to sign a document, do basic math calculations, write simple letters, and read a few Bible verses.
• On horseback or small buggy, Stewart visited as many of the Moonlight sessions as possible.
• Stewart figured that most adults in the county were raised above illiteracy, though some observers pushed back on the claim.
• According to a December 23, 2014, article in KyForward, writer Dave Tabler noted: “Stewart’s private life was not as successful as her public one. She spent her last years in a home for the elderly in Tryon, North Carolina, alone, with only enough resources to live. She had been married three times—twice to the same man. Her only child had died in infancy. Glaucoma had left her blind. She died in December 1958 at age 83.”
• The Moonlight School concept caught on outside the Rowan County borders. In 1914, the state legislature created The Kentucky Illiteracy Commission and the Moonlight Schools operated throughout Kentucky and in other states. The state’s illiteracy rate dropped four points from 1910 to 1920. There was a Moonlight School set aside for African Americans in Rowan County but it didn’t immediately succeed. Eventually, schools for both African Americans and Native Americans began to emerge across America. Cora became much sought after for her expertise and served in national organizations designed to fight illiteracy. This Kentuckian made her mark in a powerful way. Fisher praised her this way: “Playing a critical role in the development of adult education, she is now considered a pioneer in the field of literacy training.”
Sources: Encyclopedia of Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press, 2006); The Kentucky Encyclopedia, (University Press of Kentucky, 1992); historyswomen.com; en.wikipedia.org; readinghalloffame.org; encyclopedia.com; herhatwasinthering.org; KyForward, Dec. 23, 2014