African-American & Moonlight Schools



The Lesson - Wilson



Col. Sandi Gorin

Reprinted here with the permission of the author, thank you so much Sandi!  

Note:  Be sure to visit Sandi's sites listed at the bottom of this page; she has compiled fantastic information.  Her data is a must read for all researchers!

I have discussed old country schools and institutes of higher learning in past tips, but two schools haven't been mentioned - the black schools before desegregation and what was known as moonlight schools.

It might appear strange to those residing outside of Kentucky, but despite the fact that Kentucky was a state that held slaves, it never prohibited the schools and education of its slaves or any Black.  From the beginning, Kentucky encouraged the education of its blacks also. This was in deep
contrast to other slave-holding states.  It can't be said that the schooling was adequate because it was not and it was limited. Most of the schools started out in the black churches, or was done through the white slave owner's wishes at their home. Many slave owners saw to it that all of their
slaves were educated in the basic reading, writing and arithmetic.  Some also encouraged deeper studies, including the famous Stephen Bishop.  Stephen was the slave of Franklin Gorin of Glasgow who owned Mammoth Cave.  He became world-famous for his caving abilities when Franklin owned Mammoth Cave in Edmonson County and he spoke and read three languages fluently.  He was trained so well that he was extremely knowledgeable in cave explorations, botany and other higher subjects. Other slaves were denied educational opportunity I know.  Sometimes black schools met in secret in fear that the community would be outraged.  It was thought by many whites that if a slave was educated, he would be more likely to rebel and run off.

There were schools in Louisville in 1827, 1833 and 1834 and in Lexington in 1839 and 1840 per the Kentucky Encyclopedia.  In Louisville, 1841, the Louisville Fifth Street Baptist Church opened its doors to the Adams School under the direction of Rev. Henry Adams.  Up through the Civil War some elementary and secondary schools operated for slaves and free blacks.  The most well-known school, Berea College, was chartered in 1854, before the Civil War and was the only higher education biracial institution in any slave-holding state.   After John Brown's Raid in 1859 the school was closed, reopened in 1865 and by the next year was again admitting Black students. 

The Civil War brought many changes to Kentucky and its former slave population, the largest challenge of which was the formal education of the Afro-American.  The blacks held conventions in Lexington in 1867 and again in Louisville in 1869 for the purpose of petitioning Kentucky to admit
black students.  The General Assembly, being a little afraid to do this, established a separate school system for the blacks.  These schools were totally inadequate and only a small percentage of students were able to take advantage of the schools.  One of the problems was teachers. The Ealy
Normal School in Louisville opened in 1868; the State Normal School for Negroes in 1886 (Frankfort) were two early teacher's colleges.  The General Association of Colored Baptists of Kentucky planned to open a private black college which was finally begun in 1879 as the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute (later called State University in 1882).  It was associated with two private black schools, the Louisville National Medical College and the Central Law School. This was later renamed in 1918 to Simmons University.

The Eckstein Norton Institute opened in 1890 at Cane Springs in Bullitt County.  Berea College then began to create another institution for the blacks. Rev. James M Bond, a black trustee from Berea opened the Lincoln Institute of Kentucky in Shelbyville in 1912.

Following an act called the Day Law, small black schools were soon begun in Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, Glasgow and Madisonville.  But none lasted very long, finances were just not available. Between 1900 and 1930, at least the quality of education improved for the black school. But facilities were still terribly inadequate.  Lack of funding, lack of teachers, lack of decent facilities caused tremendous hardships on the average black family who desired to see their children educated. It has been a slow process leading eventually to the desegregation act. 


Moonlight schools are a more recent segment of education beginning in the early 1900's.  It all began when a lady, Cora Wilson Stewart, an educator, began a crusade against illiteracy in Kentucky.  She started an experimental education program in 1911 in Rowan County.  She knew that since most people had to work during the daytime to earn a living for their family, she would
have to hold these schools at night. The term moonlight school was taken from the fact that moonlight nights were most preferred since the people could find their way to school. 

She located volunteer teachers to teach classes at night and started recruiting students from the adults in the neighborhood.  She began a newspaper called the Rowan County Messenger and used the news events in the paper along with mathematics, literature and history to teach her students.
This also served as an encouragement to the pupils; they wouldn't have to resort to reading the little primers used by children. It is said that she expected 150 students at the first session, 1,200 students between the ages of 18 and 86 appeared. By the second year, 1,600 students came to take the 8 week course. One year later, Cora Stewart led a similar instituted in Morehead, KY which was for teachers. It was likely the first training course of its kind in Kentucky. 

This led to home schooling in Kentucky; a class set up for those too old or sick to come to the moonlight schools.  Moonlight schools in 1913 existed in Boyle, Johnson, Garrard, Mercer, Carter, Martin and Lawrence counties.  It spread throughout the state and many of our grand and great-grandparents owe their education to these wonderful moonlight schools.

For more information on moonlight schools, I'd suggest Cora Wilson Stewart's book "Moonlight Schools, published in NY 1922); Florence Estes "Cora Wilson Stewart the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky 1911-1920; A Case Study in the Rhetorical Uses of Literacy, Ed. D., diss, University of
Kentucky 1988.

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(c) Copyright 19 Sept 2002, Sandra K. Gorin, All Rights Reserved.

Col. Sandi Gorin 
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