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 family was wealthy enough that the young girl lived a life of privilege. At age 13, she started studying at the Martin Institute in Jefferson, Georgia. Two years later, she returned home to find her town and her family had fallen into poverty. At the young age of 15, Moina Michael began teaching to support the family.
In 1914, she went on a tour of Europe and was in Germany when World War I broke out, forcing her to flee to Italy to get passage aboard a ship that would return her to the U.S. It took 16 dangerous days of crossing an ocean patrolled by enemy submarines.
The Poppy Lady
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. In 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.’”
“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.
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.