Literacy’s Heroes & Heroines: Reclaiming our forgotten
by B. Allan Quigley
Our field of literacy has too many myths and not enough history.
If we had a more widely known documented history, we would be a
better informed, more widely recognized field with a stronger sense
of professional pride. If we could recover our past, we could be
more influential at the policy level and become better mentored
in our practice. Instead, many of our literacy decisions are based
on political rhetoric, decontextualized statistical data and many
In this article, two of today’s prevailing myths will be
questioned through documented history. First, there is the notion
that literacy programs have somehow “sprung up” in
recent years. Second, while the various Statistics Canada studies
over the last decade have undoubtedly created much-needed international
awareness, they have contributed to an emerging myth that success
in literacy is empirically measurable. “Counts and amounts” seem
to have become more important than learning how two hundred years
of literacy education has changed lives, communities and entire
Let’s take a look at some of the founders of our field and
where we’ve come from. Examples are from the UK, the US and
William Smith, the “Unlettered Doorman”:
According to our earliest documented histories (e.g., Hudson,
1969, original printed in 1851; Martin, 1924; Pole, 1816, reprinted
by Verner), the first, formal adult school having a lasting influence
in the English-speaking world arose in Bristol, England, in 1812.
Originally named the Bristol Institution for Instructing Adult
Persons to Read the Holy Scriptures, it was later (mercifully)
termed the “Bristol School” (Verner).
How did the Bristol School begin? The Methodists in Bristol had
been providing Bibles throughout the city. Then, in February 1812, “During
the second annual meeting of the local [Methodist] auxiliary of
the Bible Society” (Martin p. 26), a letter was handed out
to the congregation explaining that some of those being visited
were unable to read. The question asked was: “Why give Bibles
to the illiterate?” Then, William Smith stepped forward.
Smith was “a poor, humble and almost unlettered individual
in Bristol, occupying no higher rank than that of a doorkeeper
to a Methodist chapel...[yet he] conceived the idea of instructing
the adult poor to read the holy scriptures” (Hudson p. 2).
With Stephen Prust, a member of the
Society of Friends and a local tobacco merchant, the two collected
names of those who wanted to attend “a
school for persons advanced in years” (p. 3).
On March 8, 1812, the first two adult learners to enter Smith’s
rented room were William Wood, age 63, and Jane Burrace, age 40.
Soon 11 men and ten women followed, “with the numbers increasing
every week, until the rooms were filled” (p. 4). Smith “engaged
other apartments in the same neighbourhood, for the reception and
instruction of the illiterate poor, who were daily applying to
him for admission” (p. 4). Tellingly, Smith “relinquished
three shillings weekly from his small wages of 18 shillings per
week” (p. 4) to cover the expenses.
Dr. Thomas Pole, a 19th-century historian, documented the rise
of the Bristol School. He forcefully argued that there were profound
reasons to teach reading to adults: “Perusal of the sacred
scripture and other religious books, have a tendency to moralize
and Christianize the minds of men—instead of idleness, profaneness
and vice—They inculcate diligence, sobriety, frugality, piety,
and heavenly-mindedness” (Verner p. 18). Moreover, and with
echoes through to today’s work-based priorities: “Once
the good seed hath been sown...how changed will be the state of
our fair isle!...Our poor’s rates will be lightened; our
hospitals, alms-houses, dispensaries, and other public charities
less encumbered” (p. 19).
The Bristol School movement was a huge success. In just one year,
adult schools were formed at Bath, Ipswich, Plymouth, Salisbury
and Yarmouth (Kelly p. 150). By 1816, “Twenty-four schools
for men and 31 for women, with a total membership of 1,581, and
adult schools in Ireland, New York, Philadelphia and
Sierra Leone” (Kelly p. 150) had been established. While
it is simplistic to say the Bristol School movement was the singular
model for the British colonies and the United States (Verner),
it is remarkable how many aspects of this movement continue through
to today. Besides beginning our history with a curriculum driven
by ideological imperatives, it is noteworthy that formal programs
were begun by ordinary, compassionate people—by volunteers—not
governments, the elite or education systems. Clearly, adult literacy
education is not a recent phenomenon.
Rev. William Richardson, “The Liberator”:
The first documented program to receive federal funding in the
US (Rachal)—indeed in North America—occurred at Port
Royal, South Carolina, from 1862 to 1865, during the Civil War.
When the gunships of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron of
the Union Army sailed into Port Royal Sound on November 7, 1861,
Commander Sherman found 10,000 freed slaves standing in rags, many
near starvation. All were assumedly unable to read or write, since,
in 1740, South Carolina was the first state to make it illegal
to teach slaves to write. In 1834, it became illegal to teach slaves
to read. The consequences of breaking these laws ranged from having
fingers chopped off, to being branded, to being hanged (DeBoer).
Seeing the desperate situation, Sherman asked Washington headquarters
to dispatch instructors. This was a milestone in US literacy since
northerners were far from convinced that the freed slaves were
even capable of learning (DeBoer). Nevertheless, Rev.
William T. Richardson and members of the Gideonite religion answered
the call and sailed from New York on March 3, 1862 (Rachal). Their “religious
and teaching instruction” (p. 16) was both religious and
secular in content and purpose. And thousands of freed slaves came
forward. According to Rachal, they came carrying their children
on their hips or backs, walking miles along dusty roads. They came
with “an instinctive sense of literacy’s value” (p.
How were the efforts of such missionaries received by the black
leaders? W. E. B. DuBois, a major intellectual black leader and
radical activist of the day, wrote: “The teachers came…not
to keep Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the places
of defilement where slavery had sealed them” (DeBoer, Preface).
Another black leader, Booker T. Washington, stated: “Whenever
it is written—and I hope it will be—the part the Yankee
teachers played in the education of the Negroes immediately after
the war will make one of the most thrilling parts of the history
of this country” (DeBoer, Preface).
Throughout, Rev. Richardson and his wife continually made it clear
to their northern audience that African-American adults were their
intellectual equals. As Rachal points out, “[i]n that context,
Richardson’s conclusion [on intelligence] was ahead of its
time” (p. 19). Richardson, however, plagued by illness and
endless struggle, ultimately worked himself to death. And the freed
men were to experience a backlash of violence during Reconstruction
by members of the Southern slaveocracy who would not accept slaves
as free beings. As W. J. Cash recounts, lynching that was “unthinkable
when blacks were valuable property, occurred with grisly regularity” (Rachal
p. 20) during Reconstruction. Yet, the seeds of literacy had been
sown in the Southern states.
Alfred Fitzpatrick and the Frontier:
Begun some 30 years later, in 1899, Frontier College still takes
literacy to the remotest corners of Canada. In recent years, it
has been going to the “frontiers” of city streets with
programs for, and with, street people. Labourer-teachers work on
farms and in market gardens. Others have taken white-collar roles
or are working with the physically and mentally challenged, and
some build learning partnerships with Aboriginals or are
engaged with prison literacy. Alfred Fitzpatrick’s vision
of taking literacy to the people is alive and well.
At the turn of the 20th century, the truly forgotten were the
workers in Canada’s mines, remote lumber camps and those
on the railway construction gangs that moved across Canada’s
vast expanses. Believing knowledge was “the God-given right
of every person, not the exclusive privilege of the favoured few” (Morrison
p. 8), Fitzpatrick began his work in a lumber camp near Nairn Centre
in Northern Ontario with his first Reading Camp.
Eventually, he established 24 reading rooms in log structures
or canvas tents throughout this region. The teaching model evolved
into recruiting young university graduates who worked beside
labourers during the day, then taught them in the evenings. Reading
tents, boxcars, construction huts, anyplace they could gather,
became the college’s classrooms. By 1920,
some 100,000 workmen had been taught by over 500 labourer-teachers.
In 1919, degree-granting authority was granted to Frontier College
but, to Fitzpatrick’s dismay, most of the largest universities,
colleges and the provincial departments of education across Canada
would not accept the idea of a national degree-granting college.
The charter was approved but “little or no financial support
was forthcoming from [the] government” (Morrison p. 15) to
support it. Fitzpatrick died along with his dream of a degree-granting
institution in 1925. Edmund Bradwin continued as president, doing
what Frontier College has always done best: sending volunteers
throughout Canada to take literacy to the very hardest to reach.
Cora Wilson Stewart and the Moonlight Schools:
In 1911, Cora Wilson Stewart was a teacher in Rowan County—Kentucky’s
poorest county. By her own account her interest in adult literacy
began when she was asked by a mother for help so she could write
to a daughter who had recently moved to Chicago. And a man “with
tears in his eyes” (Mandrell
p. 14) begged to be helped to read and write so he could feel “whole.” An
aspiring local musician asked for help so he might pursue his dream
of becoming a musician. Like so many today, Stewart was moved by
the needs of adult learners and discovered her life’s work
in the helping process.
The idea Stewart conceived was a simple one. If the moon was shining
bright, it was a signal to adults they were welcome to come down
from the hills to learn to read and write in the local schoolhouses.
With no funding, basically no encouragement and no models to draw
upon, she opened the doors of the schoolhouses in 1911, hoping
perhaps 150 adults would come. Instead, 1,200 enrolled in the first
year 1,600 the second, and, by 1913, 25 counties had established
Moonlight Schools for adult learners (Baldwin). Sitting in children’s
desks, local men and women learned to read and write. The night’s
lessons were then printed in the local Rowan County Messenger. Besides
being a school superintendent and, at one point, principal of two
schools, Stewart was also editor of the local newspaper.
Within four years, Alabama used the Moonlight model for their “Adult
Schools,” South Carolina for their “Lay-By Schools.” “Community
Schools” began in North Carolina, “Schools for Grown-Ups” appeared
in Georgia, and Oklahoma started offering credit in its Normal
Schools for adult literacy teachers. Then, Washington state followed
with adult night schools. Minnesota and New Mexico came next (Taylor
pp. 24-25). The Moonlight School movement, according to Cook, “might
well be classified as the official beginning of literacy education
in the United States” (p. 13). Stewart wrote the CountryLife
Reader, the main teaching material for the Moonlight Schools.
She also wrote The Prisoner’s First Book. Years
ahead of her time, she included Native Indians and African-American
adults in her schools. She was later invited to become official
adviser to the US Army on adult literacy in World War I and wrote The
Soldier’s First Book. Through her efforts, thousands
of American soldiers learned how to write letters home and read
the letters sent to them on the battlefront. She was named to the
Kentucky Illiteracy Commission in 1914 and became its chairperson.
She was named chair of the Illiteracy Commission of the National
Education Association in 1919 and, in 1923, chair of the World
Illiteracy Commission. She “presided over conferences in
Edinburgh, Geneva, Toronto, San Francisco and Denver” (Taylor
p. 25). In 1926, President Coolidge named Stewart director of the
first federal National Illiteracy Crusade and director of the new
National Illiteracy Commission—a commission based on the
very model she had created in Rowan County some 25 years earlier.
However, in 1920, threatened by her success, the state’s
school superintendents voted down a bill before the Kentucky legislature
for $75,000 to continue the work of the Moonlight Schools. Some
even attacked Stewart insisting her cause was quixotic, adding
she should “channel
her effort” elsewhere (Estes p. 251). As with Fitzpatrick,
the status quo dominated. Stewart continued her work as best she
could, but, in December 1958, she died in relative obscurity in
a North Carolina nursing home at the age of 61. Today few know
Moses Coady, the Revolutionary:
By the 1920s, the “golden age of wind and sail” of
the Canadian Maritime provinces was over. Fishermen, coal miners
and steelworkers were effectively owned by absentee company proprietors,
in the sense that the “company” owned the fishing boats,
the fishing gear and the annual catch of the fishermen. Miners’ families
lived in dilapidated houses provided by the company. The “company
store” was where many Maritimers spent the few dollars they
had left at month’s end. Such feudal conditions extended
into the steel mills where workers laboured in dangerous conditions.
Meanwhile, in the pastoral countryside, farmers turned their products
over to companies connected to “the outside world.” In
December 1925, following a tour of northern Nova Scotia, the Bishop
of the Catholic diocese of Antigonish wrote to his priests saying
he had “direct evidence that there is a large number of people
who are [on] the verge of starvation” (Welton p. 45).
In the small town of Antigonish, Father Jimmy Tompkins, vice-president
of St. Francis Xavier University, had written a pamphlet entitled Knowledge
for the People urging the community to share their labour.
He also insisted that his academic colleagues go out to the people.
In 1930, StFX established an Extension Department under the direction
of Tompkins’ young cousin, Father Moses Coady, and the Antigonish
Movement was born. Coady travelled tirelessly from town to town,
speaking in town halls, churches, anywhere he could assemble a
crowd. He talked of co-operatives, pooling resources and marketing
products directly. Above all, he talked of hope. Study clubs were
created in hundreds of communities and the Extension Department
provided discussion materials. Within a decade, Moses Coady and
hundreds of participants had begun turning the economy of the entire
region around (Lotz).
Despite the fact that Coady was acutely aware of the question
of illiteracy, his grassroots movement did not include formal literacy
courses. Instead, families helped families, neighbours helped neighbours.
Literacy was a tool, not a school. After its first full year of
operation in 1930-31, 192 general meetings had been held with 14,856
people attending. By 1935, there were 940 clubs with 10,650 members,
and 84 co-operatives or credit unions were making small business
loans. People could arrange small loans to buy their own fishing
equipment and co-operatives took farm products directly to the
larger markets. Housing co-operatives followed with local people
building their own homes—homes that stand today throughout
With his booming voice, Coady turned despair into action. His
vision influenced co-operative movements across the US and throughout
Canada. In 1949, he addressed the United Nations. But, following
years of heart problems, he collapsed at the microphone before
a Wisconsin audience and died in St. Martha’s Hospital in
Antigonish, N.S., on July 28, 1959. His casket was carried to its
final resting place by a steelworker, a coal miner, two farmers
and two fishermen.
Coady believed that all people could be masters of their own destiny;
the means was adult education. Yet, although historians Selman
et al. say the Antigonish Movement is “the most famous adult
education project in Canada” (p. 45), how many in Canada’s
literacy movement know the story of Father Jimmy and Father Coady?
WHAT WILL OUR LEGACY BE?
It could be argued that these men and women were religious evangelists
or ideological missionaries—not heroes or heroines at all.
The Bristol Methodists taught the Bible for salvation, and the
Gideonites sailed carrying the dominant attitudes of the day on
religious and cultural colonization. Alfred Fitzpatrick worked
out of the prevailing social gospel movement, as did the revolutionary
Moses Coady. One can argue this is simply a romanticized recounting
of “brainwashing-bypedagogy.” Yet, I argue that these
are indeed our heroes and heroines. Actually, the questions raised
about our founders’ motives could also be raised concerning
the overt purposes of so many of our own sponsor-based programs.
In fact, it is only in the past few decades that learners’ voices
have begun to be heard in many—although far from all—literacy
programs. Moreover, historians tell us that judging the past through
the lens of today’s values ‘decontextualizes’ history
and can lead to unfair judgements about those who simply lived
according to the values of their day. As do we. As Carlson concluded,
in the final analysis “Progressives still need heroes” (p.
However one chooses to look upon our founders, or appraise the
efforts of literacy educators today, there can be little question
that these teachers—among so many others through time—dedicated
their lives to literacy. And millions of lives have since been
utterly changed by their vision. In closing, why not document our
own local histories and learn from them? Why not share our stories
so we can open more democratic spaces for the future? Why not begin
to redress the injustice of the countless lost stories of learners
who have been given little or no space in the few documented histories
we have? Surely we can do better—surely we can be better—if
we reclaim our past.
B. Allan Quigley is a Professor at St. Francis
Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Besides literacy
history, his other research interests include health literacy,
student engagement and retention, Research-in-Practice and authenticity
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