Who was the “Poppy Lady,” and why is she such an important figure today? Moina Belle Michael devoted much of her adult life to supporting wounded soldiers, and she is responsible for beginning the tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day.
Moina’s Early Life was Carefree – Until the War
Moina’s childhood was filled with dances, nice clothes, and travel. Her family’s plantation generated enough wealth that the young girl was afforded many privileges, including the opportunity to go away to school at the age of 13. But that all changed two years later. She returned home from studying at the Martin Institute in Jefferson, Georgia to discover that poverty had stricken her town and home. Eventually, her parents had to sell the plantation. At the young age of 15, Moina Michael began teaching to support the family.
The Poppy Lady
In her autobiography published in 1941, The Miracle Flower, The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy, Ms. Michael detailed much about the war and how she came up with the idea of wearing poppies as an emblem to honor those who perished during the war. “How busy everyone was kept back in those early days responding to and arousing others to respond to the superhuman struggles to win the war,” she wrote. “I anguished for some power by which our boys might be saved from gas, bombs [and] shrapnel.”
On November 9, 1918, just two days before the armistice would end the war, a young soldier entered the Y.M.C.A. in New York where Moina worked and left a copy of the November Ladies Home Journal on her desk. One of the pages was marked, and when she opened the magazine to it, she discovered Colonel John McCrae’s poem, “We Shall Not Sleep,” which was later renamed “In Flanders Fields.” McCrae’s poem described the poppies he saw growing from the graves of fallen soldiers in Flanders, Belgium. Moina wrote a reply to the poem, called “We Shall Keep the Faith,” with a decision “always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died.’”
Three soldiers had donated some money to spruce up her quarters and make them feel more like home. Instead, she took that money and bought 25 silk poppies. They weren’t easy to find, but finally the “Poppy Lady” was able to get the artificial flowers and return to headquarters. Others noticed how she had pinned the red flower to her lapel in memory of a fallen soldier, and the tradition was born. Moina later wrote in her autobiography about that day, saying:
“Since this was the first group ever to ask for poppies to wear in memory of our soldier dead, and since this group gave me the money with which to buy them, I have always considered that I, then and there, consummated the first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy.”
Today, the little red poppies are sold to help collect funds for wounded soldiers, veterans, and their families. This is not just an American custom, either. In the United Kingdom, for example, people display a red poppy on Remembrance Day, which is similar to the U.S. holiday Veterans Day.
“We Shall Keep the Faith”
by Moina Michael, November 1918
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.