For years in these hills, the fallout from the damage wrought by the Civil War was felt. One aspect of that damage that is often overlooked is the toll it took on literacy.
Simply put, in many cases there was no one coming home to make sure children were educated, and those children themselves were thrown into the task of simple survival – raising the food and doing the work that a generation of young men left dead, wounded or displaced were no longer around to do.
Education took a back seat.
As such, well into the start of the 20th century there was a generation of adults that carried a large number of functionally illiterate people. A visionary woman in Kentucky by the name of Cora Wilson Stewart who served as an elementary school teacher and county school superintendent in Rowan County, Kentucky, saw a way to remedy the situation: Open the schools to adults at times they could attend.
Thus, the first “Moonlight School.”
The schools were dubbed “Moonlight Schools” for the simple reason that sessions were held on nights with enough moonlight to illuminate the wagon trails and footpaths the new cohort of students used to reach their destination. The concept was a hit; “Moonlight Schools,” staffed by volunteer teachers, were flooded with adults, at least one reportedly as old as 98, eager to learn letters and math.
The lesson of “Moonlight Schools” was not lost in North Carolina, or in Jackson County. On the front page of the March 19, 1915 edition of the Jackson County Journal, County Superintendent David H. Brown wrote the following:
“According to the 1910 Census report, 15.3 percent of the native-born whites in Jackson County over 10 years of age cannot read and write. In this respect Jackson County holds the 77th place, 76 counties in the state having a smaller percent of illiterates than we do … there are only two states in the Union which have a larger percentage of native-born white illiterates than does North Carolina. We see, therefore, that North Carolina is very much behind the other states in this respect and we also see that Jackson County is very much behind North Carolina.
Something must be done. We cannot afford to remain among the most ignorant of the United States.
For a long time we have been laboring and sacrificing to educate our boys and girls and I believe that Jackson County, according to her wealth, is raising as much money locally – by local tax and private donations – for schools as any county in the state and I am glad to say that today our number of boys and girls under 21 years of age who cannot read and write is indeed very small.
Since practically all our boys and girls can read and write (and we are going to continue teaching them) the problem of reducing the percentage of illiteracy in Jackson County is to be met in the men and women who have not yet had the opportunity of learning to read and write.
When we remember that North Carolina sent into the Civil War 10,000 more men than she had voters and we think of the awfulness of the struggle of the few returning home to live, we do not wonder so much that many of the orphan sons and daughters were not taught to read and write. We may justly, and truly should be proud of the heritage they gave, yet by virtue of this heritage we stand very low from the standpoint of literacy. So long as these noble men and women remain illiterate among us, our percent of illiteracy cannot further be very rapidly reduced.
It is true that a great many of their heads are getting white and they will soon be taken away, but shame be to us if we stand idly by, waiting for them to totter into the grave! Let us help them to live – live a fuller life; not wait for them to die!
In Kentucky the ‘Moonlight’ schools are very rapidly reducing adult illiteracy, and these schools are being established in many places in North Carolina. These schools were first organized in Rowan County, Kentucky in 1911 and the first year almost one-third of the county was enrolled. The teachers of the district hold night sessions where the men and women come, some to add to the very limited education received in the very inadequate schools of their childhood, others to take their first lessons in any school.
Next August when schools begin, I hope that these ‘moonlight’ schools will be started in an organized and systematic way. But there is hardly a district in the county in which a teacher does not live or at least someone who is capable, and I believe a great deal may be accomplished before time for school to start. I am glad to say that one of these schools has already started and a man 40 years old who knew neither his letters nor figures has been taught to read and write and add any number. I hope to hear in a short time that these schools have been started all over the county.”
As related in the Digital North Carolina Blog, the call did not fall on deaf ears. James Y. Joyner, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the state had a duty to educate its “grown-up children.”
(Joyner had a building, since claimed by fire, on the Western Carolina College campus named in his honor).
Newspapers across the state ran the October 1915 proclamation from the governor declaring the coming November as “Moonlight School Month.” Some 10,000 adults enrolled in November.
In 1917 the legislature appropriated $25,000 annually for the schools; in 1919 the schools became part of the public school system.
The move evidently worked; adult illiteracy hovered at around 20 percent in 1910, dropped to 15 percent in 1920 and continued to shrink as the years went by.
For a good read on Cora Wilson Stewart and “Moonlight Schools,” look up “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Moonlight Schools for the Emancipation of Adult Illiterates, by Cora Wilson Stewart” on the internet.