When Bessie Stringfield tossed pennies onto a map of the country,
she did more than decide where to steer her motorcycle for each
trip. She began creating a legend.
In 1927, blacks were rarely found on roads alone, so to see a 16-
year-old Stringfield motoring along on her bike – in the South –
must have been something. The Jamaican-born woman insisted
that she wasn’t out to create a scene. She just wanted to
experience more of the world. She was not ignorant of what was
surely rampant racial discrimination; she simply chose to live her life
around it.
“I never got the sense that she thought of herself as a flag-waver or
a champion of civil rights,” says Ann Ferrar, who spoke with
Stringfield for her book, Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and
the Rapture of the Road. “Remember, she was dealing with it before
the advent of what most Americans think of as the ‘modern’ Civil
Rights Movement. I think Bessie was just being Bessie.”
Orphaned, then adopted at age five by an Irish woman in Boston
who obviously didn’t mind defying convention either, Stringfield
asked for a motorcycle while in high school. She got a 1928 Indian
Scout. She spent the ‘30s and ‘40s completing eight solo rides
across America, on one of the 27 Harley-Davidsons she would own
during her lifetime. She is quoted as saying, “To me, a Harley is the
only motorcycle ever made.”
At 19, calling her coin-chosen trips “penny tours,” Stringfield said
she depended on the Lord to protect her as she traveled. “She was
Catholic and believed very strongly in Jesus Christ and that He was
watching over her,” says Ferrar. Perhaps Stringfield’s outspoken
nature disarmed any would be attackers, even though her 5-foot, 3-
inch frame may have made her an easy target. She stayed with
other black people when she could and slept on her bike when she
couldn’t.
Her brave spirit found her serving in the army as a civilian
motorcycle dispatch rider during World War II, carrying documents
between bases. Again, Stringfield unintentionally carved out a
space for herself in history by being the only woman in her unit. No
doubt she was the only African-American.
As she approached her 40's, Stringfield settled in Miami, now single
after marrying and divorcing six times. She suffered the loss of three
babies while married to her first husband and never had other
children. She spent her time performing at stunt shows with her
dogs. Stringfield, now nicknamed the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami,”
also founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club and became a
licensed practical nurse. An enlarged heart began to limit her
activities, but not her joy of life, says Ferrar of this “very
accomplished yet very understated woman.”
Stringfield died in 1993. When told by her doctor to stop riding
because of her condition, Stringfield answered, “I told him if I don’t
ride, I won’t live long. And so I never did quit.”
In recognition of Stringfield’s pioneering spirit, the American
Motorcycle Association (AMA) created the Bessie Stringfield Award
in 2000. It is given to “women who have been instrumental in
showing other women they can be active participants in the world of
motorcycling.” Two years later, she was inducted into the
association’s Hall of Fame.
Bessie Stringfield
Blazing the way
Leaving her mark
FIRE FUN PAGE