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The Poppy Lady

Is there a women's history tie-in to Memorial Day? Indeed there is.

The red poppy, a blood red flower, as the symbol of remembrance, honoring soldiers was the brainstorm of Moina Belle Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia who went to New York City to serve as a YMCA volunteer war worker helping wounded World War I soldiers.

On November 9, 1918, just two days before the armistice ended World War I, a soldier left a copy of a magazine on her desk. A page was marked. There she found a copy of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae's famous war poem, "We Shall Not Sleep," later renamed "In Flanders Fields." (McCrae, a Canadian physician, wrote the poem on May 3, 1915, after conducting the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier who died in a battle fought in Ypres, a town in western Belgium. It begins: In Flanders field the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row . . .)*

The last verse—If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.— Moina Michael, later wrote "transfixed me." She vowed to "always wear a red poppy . . . as a sign of remembrance."

Galvanized by what she called "a full spiritual experience," Michael wrote a poem, "We Shall Keep the Faith." She walked the streets of New York, in and out of stores, looking for red poppies. She finally bought twenty-five silk red poppies at Wanamaker's Department Store that she distributed to colleagues. She launched a letter-writing campaign promoting her idea.

In 1920, Moina Michael pinned a red poppy to her dress and went to an American Legion convention. In 1922, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, officially adopted the red poppy as their symbol of service and sacrifice.

A Frenchwoman Madame Guérin, who was at the American Legion convention, spread Michael's idea to Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Her goal was to raise money for French war widows and orphans by selling poppies that they made.

Moina Michael's great nephew, Tom Michael calculated that during Moina Michael's lifetime, "If you adjust for inflation, poppy sales raised $3 billion worldwide, most of which went directly to veterans." Veterans continue to benefit from the sale of red poppies.

Moina Michael became internationally known as the Poppy Lady. In 1933, an 18" doll modeled on Moina Michael won the national doll competition. The article below appeared in the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas), November 12, 1933.

A marble bust of Moina Michael by sculptor Steffen Thomas is in the rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. A World War II Liberty class transport cargo ship was dedicated the SS Moina Michael. There is a roadside marker in her home town of Good Hope, Georgia. A section of road is named the Moina Michael Highway.

Moina Michael died on May 10, 1944. A blanket in the shape of a cross with more than

3,000 red poppies made by veteran covered her coffin. (Left image: The Atlanta Constitution, May 11, 1944, p.1)

Four years later, in 1948, a U.S. postage stamp was released honoring her as the

Founder of Memorial Poppy.

*Many poppies appeared on battlefields during World War I. Curious about why, I found this answer on an informative website, "Discovering Belgium":

"The war created prime conditions for poppies to flourish in Flanders and north-west France (and Gallipoli). Continual bombardment disturbed the soil and brought the seeds to the surface. They were fertilized by nitrogen in the explosives and lime from the shattered rubble of the buildings.

Most poignantly, the blood and the bones of the millions of men, horses, donkeys, dogs and other animals richly fertilized the soil.

The longer the war continued, the more men and animals died. The more men and animals died, the more the poppies thrived."

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