The life and times of Bessie Stringfield came to my attention via wakanomori, via the owner of Small Dog Electronics, who is a motorcycle aficionado, but the text and photos below come from the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame page on her. The article there is written by Ann Ferrar, adapted from the book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road.
The life and times of African-American motorcycling pioneer Bessie B. Stringfield seem like the stuff of which legends are made ...
In the 1930s and 1940s, Bessie took eight long-distance, solo rides across the United States. Speaking to a reporter, she dismissed the notion that "nice girls didn’t go around riding motorcycles in those days." Further, she was apparently fearless at riding through the Deep South when racial prejudice was a tangible threat. Was Bessie consciously championing the rights of women and African-Americans? Bessie would most likely have said she was simply living her life in her own way ...
Early on, Bessie had to steel herself against life’s disappointments. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1911, as a child she was brought to Boston but was orphaned by age 5.
"An Irish lady raised me," she recalled. "I’m not allowed to use her name. She gave me whatever I wanted. When I was in high school I wanted a motorcycle. And even though good girls didn’t ride motorcycles, I got one." ...
At 19, she began tossing a penny over a map and riding to wherever it landed. Bessie covered the 48 lower states. Using her natural skills and can-do attitude, she did hill climbing and trick riding in carnival stunt shows. But it was her faith that got her through many nights.
"If you had black skin you couldn’t get a place to stay," she said. "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 laid her jacket on the handlebars as a pillow and rested her feet on the rear fender.
In between her travels, Bessie wed and divorced six times, declaring, "If you kissed, you got married." After she and her first husband were deeply saddened by the loss of three babies, Bessie had no more children. Upon divorcing her third husband, Arthur Stringfield, she said, "He asked me to keep his name because I’d made it famous!"
During World War II, Bessie worked for the army as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider. The only woman in her unit, she completed rigorous training maneuvers. She learned how to weave a makeshift bridge from rope and tree limbs to cross swamps, though she never had to do so in the line of duty. With a military crest on the front of her own blue Harley, a "61," she carried documents between domestic bases.
Bessie encountered racial prejudice on the road. One time she was followed by a man in a pickup truck who ran her off the road, knocking her off her bike. She downplayed her courage in coping with such incidents. "I had my ups and downs," she shrugged.
In the 1950s, Bessie bought a house in a Miami, Florida suburb. She became a licensed practical nurse and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. Disguised as a man, Bessie won a flat track race but was denied the prize money when she took off her helmet. Her other antics – such as riding while standing in the saddle of her Harley – attracted the local press. Reporters called her the "Negro Motorcycle Queen" and later the "Motorcycle Queen of Miami." In the absence of children, Bessie found joy in her pet dogs, some of whom paraded with her on her motorcycle.
Late in life, Bessie suffered from symptoms caused by an enlarged heart. "Years ago the doctor wanted to stop me from riding," she recalled. "I told him if I don’t ride, I won’t live long. And so I never did quit."--Ann Ferrar
I mean, wow. She deserves her own comic book and movie. (She has a YouTube video which features photos of her, here.)