If you’ve ever worn a red paper poppy in support of Memorial Day or Veterans Day, you can thank Moina Belle Michael. Her tireless efforts of bringing recognition to the plight of disabled veterans is symbolized with the poppy.
Born on a farm near Good Hope, Georgia, on August 15, 1869, Moina was raised by religious parents who valued education. She attended boarding school, and then just months shy of her sixteenth birthday, returned home to take the position of the local community teacher.
When the farm could no longer bring in a profit, she moved the family into town and paid for their rental housing with her teacher’s pay. She remained an educator for the next fifty years, teaching from elementary age all the way to college, and always on Georgia soil.
During the summer of 1914, Moina joined a tour group visiting Europe. While the group was in Germany, that country declared war against Russia. The Americans found themselves as stranded tourists swept up a difficult situation. They finally landed in Rome, Italy, seeking safe passage back to the United States.
Once home on American soil, Moina continued her teaching at the Normal School in Athens, Georgia. (Normal School was the title for schools of higher education training students to become teachers).
But then on April 6, 1917, America entered the Great War, sending thousands of young soldiers to fight in Europe. Moina decided to help the war effort and enlist, but she was rejected due to her age – forty-seven. Instead, she volunteered for the YMCA War Workers and reported to the training headquarters in New York City.
While in New York, she read an issue of the Ladies Home Journal reprinting a poem entitled “In Flanders Field” by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae. He had penned the following excerpted lines after losing his best friend on a battle field in Flanders, Belgium. Dr. McCrae had stood on the grounds where his comrades had fallen and saw that the fields were blooming with vibrant red poppies.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.”
Moina was so touched by the poem that she desired to create a national symbol of remembrance for the fallen soldiers.
She decided to wear a red poppy.
Quite soon her co-workers asked if they too could wear a poppy, and thus began Moina’s new life work. Hunting through the shops of New York City, she found a merchant who would sell her all his paper poppies.
When the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, the day was declared as Remembrance Day or Veterans Day in honor of all the men and women who had lost their lives fighting for freedom.
Simply wearing the poppies was not enough. Moina decided she could best help the veterans who returned home, injured for life, by having them mass produce red paper poppies and sell the flowers for Remembrance Day and Memorial Day. All proceeds would go back to the veterans for costs of their rehabilitation.
Her idea of red poppies for remembrance quickly spread to Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand.
When she died at age 75, in 1944, over $200 million dollars had been raised for the care and rehabilitation of disabled veterans.
Approximately one million soldiers were wounded, missing, or killed in the Great War, also known as World War I, but their legacy lives on through the efforts of one strong woman – Moina Belle Michael. Today, the wearing of a red poppy on Veterans Day or Memorial Day is used in recognition of all the service people killed in a war.
If you wish to wear a crepe-paper poppy this Veterans Day, contact your local American Legion post, and make a donation. The ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary sell the poppies. Then give a nod to Moina Belle Michael.
I hope you enjoyed this month’s story of a not-so-famous strong woman. If you are not yet a follower, please do so on the right side bar. You can catch more stories of strong women in my two novels, Cut From Strong Cloth, and Last Curtain Call, both available on Amazon.