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Southern Rider Goes the Distance

Amazing Bessie spent 60 years in the saddle, aboard 28 different motorcycles

by Ann Ferrar
2/18/2023


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Ann Ferrar, author of “Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road,” considers Bessie Stringfield one of her life’s greatest inspirations. Ferrar spent time with Ms. Stringfield during Bessie’s golden years, and thus a friendship blossomed between two women riders of different generations and very different life experiences. When Ms. Stringfield was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002, Ferrar’s biography of Bessie from “Hear Me Roar” was read by the emcee at her induction ceremony and posted on the AMA Hall of Fame website. This is a new version of the story, updated for us by the author. She is also writing Stringfield’s book-length biography, “African American Queen of the Road.”

© Copyright, 1990 – Present, Ann Ferrar
 
 
In 1990, I met and befriended an extraordinary African American biker who changed my life and whose story has since inspired thousands of people around the world. Her name was Bessie Stringfield. She was 79 at the time, a tiny and soft-spoken woman wearing a vintage Harley-Davidson cap. I was 35, an established writer in New York City but still a novice biker back then. So I hung on her every word.

Bessie Stringfield, born in 1911 in the southeastern United States, had spent 60 years in the saddle aboard 28 different motorcycles – one Indian, 27 Harleys – but still, she was an unknown figure outside her own neighborhood in Miami, Florida. Her hidden story was in danger of being lost upon her death.

Throughout U.S. history, so many stories of worthy African Americans didn’t get the attention they deserved. I was determined to keep Bessie’s memory alive by recording her on audio tape and writing her life. The first story I wrote about Bessie was her eulogy, published in 1993 in American Iron Magazine. Then came the narrative in Hear Me Roar in 1996, followed by other stories in print and online, all labors of love.
 
 

In the 1930s and 1940s, my friend Bessie Stringfield took eight long-distance, solo rides around the country in the style of the old gypsy tours. Bessie dismissed the scolding of relatives who said that “nice girls didn’t go around riding motorcycles” and she became estranged from them. I recognized that Bessie went against expectations for women – and she went against expectations for Black women especially. Her travels took place during the era of segregation, when racial bias could make for tough situations, sometimes to the point of threatening her very safety.

Was Bessie Stringfield consciously championing the rights of women and African-Americans? Well, Bessie was never a marcher in the formal sense. She did her own thing quietly, as one woman determined to live life her way. Her chosen way was the motorcycle lifestyle.

One time in the South during the Jim Crow era, Bessie was followed by a man in a pickup truck who ran her off the road, knocking her off her bike. When I asked her about this and other incidents, Bessie downplayed her courage. She told me, “I had my ups and downs, but nobody killed me, thank God.” She credited her deity, Jesus Christ, aka “the Man Upstairs,” with keeping her safe and with helping her to keep her cool.
 
 

In my view, Bessie Stringfield’s superpower was not necessarily her prowess as a rider; it was her unwavering faith and generosity of spirit. She showed as much bravery in keeping her faith, capacity to love, and ability to bond with unlikely people, even when faced with people like that menacing driver in the pickup truck. Because of her humanity, Bessie’s life was not defined by struggle, but rather in how she reacted to each situation.

As a result, Bessie had many positive and life-affirming encounters on the road. Speaking into my tape recorder in the colloquial manner of her generation, she told me, “All along the way, wherever I rode the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman ridin’ a motorcycle.”

Bessie told me she was 16 when she climbed aboard her first bike, a 1928 Indian Scout. With no prior knowledge of how to operate the controls, Bessie proved to be a natural. She insisted to me that the Man Upstairs gave her the skills. “He taught me and He’s with me at all times, even now. When I get on the motorcycle I put the Man Upstairs on the front. I’m very happy on two wheels.”
 
 

Bessie was especially happy on Milwaukee iron. Her one Indian notwithstanding, Bessie said of the 27 Harleys she owned in her lifetime, “To me, a Harley is the only motorcycle ever made.” She could not understand why my starter bike in the early 1990s was not a Harley. I explained that the cost of insuring a Harley in Manhattan – and repairing it when I fell off — was not within my budget as a freelance writer!

Bessie went on to tell me that at 19, she began tossing a penny over a map and riding to wherever it landed. Using her natural skills and can-do attitude, she did hill climbing and trick riding. One time, disguised as a man, Bessie tried her hand at a flat-track race. She won the race but was denied the prize money when she took off her helmet.

During World War II, Bessie did her part on the homefront. She was employed by the Army as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider and was the only woman in her unit of Black men. She rode her own blue Harley, a “61,” to carry documents and mail between domestic bases between 1942 and 1945.
 
 

It was still Bessie’s faith that got her through many nights. “If you had Black skin you couldn’t get a place to stay,” she told me. “I knew the Lord would take care of me and He did. If I found Black folks, I’d stay with them. If not, I’d sleep at filling stations on my motorcycle.” She showed me how she laid her jacket on the handlebars as a pillow and rested her feet on the rear fender.

In the 1950s, Bessie took a mortgage on a house in Miami, Florida and became a licensed practical nurse (LPN) to support herself. Later, in the mid-1960s, she founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. They had group rides and gatherings at her house until they disbanded circa 1970 and then lost touch completely. Around the neighborhood, Bessie’s antics – such as riding while standing in the saddle of her Harley – earned her a couple of nicknames: “Negro Motorcycle Queen” and later “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”

As an elder, Bessie lost a lot of weight and suffered from symptoms caused by an enlarged heart. Before she died in 1993 at the age of 82, Bessie said, “They tell me my heart is three times the size it’s supposed to be.” I’ve always felt this is a perfect metaphor for this amazing woman whose heart and spirited determination have touched so many lives.

Bessie Stringfield was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. https://americanmotorcyclist.com/hall-of-famer-spotlight-bessie-stringfield-

Visit https://BessieStringfieldBook.com to learn more about Ms. Stringfield and Ms. Ferrar’s coming, full-length biography, African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield, A Woman’s Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road.
 
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