Credit: Stephanie Buck
Bessie Stringfield was a legendary force during the ripening of American motorcycle culture. As a woman of color participating in a taboo lifestyle, she faced immeasurable prejudice. Yet she lived by a simple credo:
What I did was fun, and I loved it.”
In 1930, at the age of 19, Stringfield became the first African-American woman to ride across the United States solo. Before the interstate highway system, road travel was haphazard at best; pavement was scarce, and dirt roads were carved with danger, if they existed at all. As a skilled rider, Stringfield navigated these challenges. But discrimination and Jim Crow laws posed even more treacherous hurdles.
Betsy Ellis was born February 9, 1911, in Kingston, Jamaica, to a white Dutch mother and Jamaican father. Soon her parents moved the family to Boston, but both died of smallpox when Betsy was five years old. (It’s unclear when or why her name was changed to Bessie.) In Boston an Irish Catholic woman adopted Bessie and raised her in a devout household. Bessie would call the woman her “mother” the rest of her life but never named her in interviews.
When Bessie was 16 she asked her mother for a motorcycle and received a 1928 Indian Scout. Despite not knowing how to operate the controls, she attributed her talent to the grace of God, whom she called “the Man Upstairs.”
“When I get on the motorcycle I put the Man Upstairs on the front. I’m very happy on two wheels,” she told journalist and author Ann Ferrar in Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road (1996).
As she traveled throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Bessie faced risks at every turn. As an African-American woman who participated in an alternative lifestyle, she was treated as a second-class citizen, especially in the Deep South, where few black people were able to move freely. When motels denied her accommodation, she slept in gas station parking lots — her motorcycle a bed, her jacket a pillow. Once she was reportedly knocked off the road by a white man in a pickup truck.
By World War II, Stringfield and her Harley-Davidsons were fixtures on the motorcycle circuit. (To her, Harleys were “the only motorcycle ever made.” She would own 27 during her lifetime.) She worked with the Army as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider, the only woman in her unit, carrying messages between domestic bases. She affixed the Army crest to the front of her blue Harley 61.
In the 1950s, Stringfield made her home in Miami, where she became a registered nurse and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. She was repeatedly pulled over, she said, by police officers who claimed “nigger women are not allowed to ride motorcycles.” Rather than quit, Stringfield arranged a meeting with the chief of police, took him to a local park, and proved her motorcycle skills first-hand. She was never targeted by police again. Instead she performed in races and earned the nickname “the Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” After winning one race disguised as a man, she took off her helmet to claim the prize and was subsequently refused.
In 2000 the American Motorcycle Association honored Stringfield with an exhibition and created the Bessie Stringfield Award, presented annually to an individual who has been instrumental in bringing motorcycling to new audiences. She was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. In June 2016, the Miami Times reported that 200 female riders would travel to Stringfield’s South Florida home to honor the late pioneer.
Stringfield had already died in 1993 at age 82 from complications surrounding an “enlarged heart.” Though her doctor had advised her to stop riding,
I told him if I don’t ride, I won’t live long. And so I never did quit.”
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