Good Morning Obots!
Have you heard of Bessie Stringfield?
In 1930s America, a woman riding a motorcycle was an unusual site. A woman riding alone, cross-country on the dirt roads that laced together rural America was almost scandalous. And if that woman was African American, well, let’s just say jaws might drop when Bessie Stringfield motored into town on her Harley-Davidson.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Stringfield made eight, long-distance, solo rides, eventually traveling through all 48 states. She left on her first ride at age 19 after tossing a penny on a map to select a destination. She didn’t ride to make a statement. She just had a passion for motorcycles, and simply refused to let the barriers of her times hold her back. “I was somethin’,” Stringfield told author Ann Ferrar in a 1990 interview. “What I did was fun and I loved it.”
Ferrar profiles Stringfield in her book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road, an account that provides much of the historic record of her life and exploits. Stringfield was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911, and moved to Boston with her parents. Orphaned at the age of five, she was adopted by a wealthy, white couple who nurtured her fierce independence. When she was 16, she asked for a motorcycle and was given a 1928 Indian Scout. She learned to do stunts on the motorcycle and began performing, riding side-saddle, on one footboard, and even standing on the seat.
In 1930, Stringfield replaced the Indian with a new Harley-Davidson, and set out on her first “gypsy tour,” performing as a barnstorming stunt rider along the way. In an era that historian Rayford Logan has called “the nadir of American race relations,” when discrimination against African Americans was rampant and often violent, Stringfield learned to cope. Often denied hotel lodging, she would seek a room with a local black family, or just sleep on her motorcycle. During World War II, Stringfield volunteered for a civilian courier service and rode from base to base with documents for the Army as the only woman in her unit.
“All along the way, wherever I rode,” Stringfield told Ferrar, “people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motorcycle.”
Stringfield relocated in the Miami, Fla., area after her adoptive parents died in the late 1930s. There she cruised the city streets, often with two poodles riding along on her knees, and was dubbed by the local press as the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” In the 1950s, she earned a nursing license and made that her new career. She was also the founder of the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, and purchased a home that became the Iron Horse club house. In a 63-year riding career, Stringfield owned 27 Harley-Davidson bikes, “Always blue, and always new,” she told Ferrar. The last was a 1978 FLH. She died of a heart ailment in 1993, at the age of 82.
In 2000, the American Motorcyclist Association created the Bessie Stringfield Memorial Award for Superior Achievement by a Female Motorcyclist. She was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.