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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.)




Comments

( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
sartorias
Feb. 15th, 2017 04:31 pm (UTC)
I fell in love with her the moment I read about her tossing a penny onto a map, and going there.

Thanks for this link!
asakiyume
Feb. 15th, 2017 04:35 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! Yeah, wakanomori was reading out about her, and I thought, wow, what a wonderful person.
rachelmanija
Feb. 15th, 2017 06:18 pm (UTC)
That could be the opening credits of the movie: her hand tossing the penny on to the map, it lands, rolls, comes down, we see where....

...cut to her roaring past the sign for whatever place it was. With optional gaping crowd.
asakiyume
Feb. 15th, 2017 10:51 pm (UTC)
I would *love* to see it.
osprey_archer
Feb. 15th, 2017 04:40 pm (UTC)
Oh wow, that would be an amazing comic book. And probably a pretty good movie, too, but I think the story really lends itself to the episodic nature of a comic book. Or maybe a TV show? I feel like a movie would have to leave out too much.

Motorcycle Queen of Miami would be a kickass title, too, although it doesn't exactly apply to the early parts of her life when she wasn't living in Miami yet. Maybe you could start it off with her in Miami, reminiscing - frame the whole thing as a flashback, just so you could keep that title...

Plus each episode could start with a short opener about Bessie (older but still awesome) and her dogs and her motorcycle, then flash back to the big adventures. It could be pretty great.
asakiyume
Feb. 15th, 2017 10:50 pm (UTC)
I really feel like approaching some of the people whose comics style I admire and suggesting it to them. Though they'd have to be good at drawing not only people but motorcycles.....
cmcmck
Feb. 15th, 2017 05:10 pm (UTC)
Ooh! Bikes!

But you knew I'd say that! :o)
asakiyume
Feb. 15th, 2017 10:50 pm (UTC)
:D
rachelmanija
Feb. 15th, 2017 06:16 pm (UTC)
Fantastic! Thanks for writing this. The photos are great too.

Definitely should be a movie AND a comic book.
asakiyume
Feb. 15th, 2017 10:51 pm (UTC)
I really wish someone would snap this up!
sovay
Feb. 16th, 2017 12:12 am (UTC)
The life and times of African-American motorcycling pioneer Bessie B. Stringfield seem like the stuff of which legends are made

I discovered her in 2015 via her preferred model of motorcycle. I'd watch the movie.
asakiyume
Feb. 16th, 2017 12:19 am (UTC)
in lieu of a motorcycle, have a godiva cat in a car
I seem to have missed that entry of yours! But that's a good way to discover her. When we first moved to this area, wakanomori was interested to learn that Indian motorcycles had originated in Springfield, MA.
heliopausa
Feb. 16th, 2017 01:07 am (UTC)
Oh, she's brilliant!! Thank you and thanks to wakanomori.
asakiyume
Feb. 17th, 2017 04:41 pm (UTC)
Our pleasure!
athenais
Feb. 16th, 2017 07:22 am (UTC)
I've read about her before. This makes me want to go back and read all about her again. She was really something.
asakiyume
Feb. 17th, 2017 04:42 pm (UTC)
She really was! What I like about the page on her at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame is that it has quotes from her, and quite apart from her exploits (which are awesome), she just sounds like someone it would be fun to have a conversation with.
rustica
Feb. 16th, 2017 09:16 am (UTC)
Wow, what a cool person!
asakiyume
Feb. 17th, 2017 04:42 pm (UTC)
It's fun running into people like this!
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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