During World War I, the fields in the Flanders region of Belgium were devastated. Shells from heavy artillery fire blasted the earth, thrusting soil into the air. As the soil enriched by the lime from rubble, fell back to the ground, it covered seeds of the papaver rhoeas, a wild poppy. Amid the craters left by the shelling, across the ravaged fields, and between the crosses of the graves of fallen soldiers, the poppies denied the war and sprang forth with life bursting into vivid red blooms.
Dr. John A. McCrae, a Lt. Colonel and physician with the Canadian Army witnessed much on the fields of Flanders. As a doctor, he saw wounded and mangled bodies, heard men screaming in anguish, and watched as the number of graves of his comrades multiplied.
Miss Michaels had grown up the daughter of affluent parents, John and Alice Wise Michaels, who were the owners of a cotton plantation in Georgia. She received her early education at Braswell Academy followed by a stint at the Martin Institute in Jefferson, Georgia. A couple of months before her sixteenth birthday in 1885, Moina returned home to Good Hope, her rural home that was suffering from economic difficulties. Good Hope, like most of the South was still struggling to overcome the distress that had been brought on by the Civil War. Cotton prices were low.
Taxes were high, and the community had not been able to pay a school teacher for a year. Miss Michaels was convinced by her mother that she had been fortunate enough to have received a good education, and that she should pitch in and help the community by teaching school. Her career as an educator began when she was only fifteen years old.
After she began teaching, things did not get better for the region. Four years of droughts and floods caused crop failure and ruined machinery. Mr. Michaels was forced to sell the plantation, and Moina accepted a teaching position in Monroe, Georgia. The family moved, and Moina became the main source of income for the family, paying for their rent with her teaching salary. From that time forward, Miss Michaels taught in several towns at a variety of levels: town, county, state, and even church. One of her teaching positions was at the Lucy Cobb Institute. She also taught at the State Normal School, a teacher’s college, in Athens, Georgia. She later studied in New York City at Columbia University.
Later in the day, Moina purchased some silk red poppies at Wanamakers, a local department store, and wore one on her lapel. The clerk who sold her the flower was very moved, confiding in Miss Michael that her brother was one who slept in Flanders Fields. People began requesting Moina to make poppies for them to wear. Soon others began to follow in the wearing of poppies.
Across the Atlantic a short time later, in 1919, a French woman named Madame E. Guerin was also moved by McCrae’s poem and began launching her own effort to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Madame Guerin, already involved in efforts to help the families of servicemen as the founder of the American and French Children’s League, was concerned that those who lost their lives in Flanders Fields were being forgotten. Madame E. Guerin began making contact with every serviceman’s organization she could requesting to speak to their organizations. At each speaking engagement, her request was the same: “Be it resolved that every member, if possible, and his or her family shall wear a silk red poppy.”
The idea was embraced by the people of France. In Great Britain, the Prince of Wales sponsored the program. Other nations joined in including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Cuba. Each nation agreed to sell the poppies with proceeds dedicated to benefiting the children of France.
At this point, Madame Guerin turned to the Veterans of Foreign Wars for assistance. They agreed to take over the Poppy Project from the American Legion. Before Memorial Day in 1922, the VFW carried out their first nationwide distribution of the poppies in the United States and adopted the poppy as the official memorial flower of the VFW.
Little did anyone know that when Moina Michaels picked up that issue of Ladies Home Journal and made her vow to wear a poppy as a symbol of remembrance that she would start a memorial tradition that would benefit so many. In 1931, she was honored by the State of Georgia when they bestowed upon her the title “Distinguished Citizen of Georgia”. In the Georgia State Capitol today, a marble bust which was unveiled in 1937 by the Georgia Department of the American Legion and its Auxiliary, is on display of Miss Michaels. Throughout the years, Miss Michael’s creation of the Poppy Memorial Days have generated millions of dollars for the employment and rehabilitation of disabled servicemen. Miss Michaels died on May 10, 1944, and already approximately $200,000,000 had be raised through the Buddy Poppy. Shortly after her death the U.S. Government christened a “liberty ship” The Moina Michaels. It was launched at Savannah, Georgia. She was also honored with the printing of her picture on a three cent postage stamp, which was first issued in Athens, Georgia on November 9, 1948, the same day she first wore a poppy in 1918, thirty years later. The stamp recognized her role in originating the idea of the World War I memorial poppy.
The tradition has continued as each year around Memorial Day, Veterans of Foreign Wars members and American Legion Auxiliary volunteers distribute millions of the bright red poppies in exchange for contributions to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans. The poppy program provides multiple benefits to the veterans and to the community. Hospitalized veterans make the flowers and earn a small wage to supplement their incomes. The work helps them feel more self-sufficient. There are physical and mental benefits, too. The poppy program continues to remind people of the sacrifices of those who died. It also reminds Americans of the needs of veterans and their families. Because of the vow and work of Moina Michaels, The Poppy Lady, the poppy has become a recognized symbol of sacrifice and honor.