Despite pervasive racism and the weight of the Great Depression, Bessie Stringfield found freedom on the open road.
Photo courtesy of Ann Ferrar, biographer of Bessie Stringfield.
She zoomed over forlorn dusty roads, responding to the beckoning call of new adventures. The airborne sensation and the freedom of the road ensured that she climbed on her trusty Harley-Davidson time and time again. Long before the hashtag #CarefreeBlackGirl was coined, Bessie Stringfield was living her life freely on her own terms—riding her motorcycle across the United States solo.
Born in 1911, Stringfield got her first motorcycle, a 1928 Indian Scout, while she was still in her teens and taught herself how to ride it. As chronicled in the 1993 book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road by Stringfield’s protégé and eventual biographer Ann Ferrar, at the age of 19, young Stringfield flipped a penny onto a map of the US then ventured out on her bike alone. Interstate highways didn’t yet exist at the time, but the rough, unpaved roads didn’t deter her. In 1930, she became the first Black woman to ride a motorcycle in every one of the connected 48 states—a solo cross-country ride she undertook eight times during her lifetime. But not even that satisfied her wanderlust. Eventually, she went abroad to Haiti, Brazil, and parts of Europe.
“When I get on the motorcycle I put the Man Upstairs on the front.” Stringfield told Ferrar, referring to God. “I’m very happy on two wheels.”
As retold by Ferrar in an interview with the New York Times, no matter where Stringfield was in the world, she said “the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motor cycle.” In the 1930s and 40s, because of racial prejudice and Jim Crow laws, Stringfield wasn’t welcomed in most motels. So, she often slept on her bike at gas stations or, if luck was on her side, she could stay with Black families she met on her way.
The rising American motorcycle culture wasn’t inclusive, either. The American Motorcycle Association, which was founded in 1924, only started allowing Black members in the 1950s (and even then, most of them were male).
But by the start of World War II, Stringfield became an asset to the United States government as a civilian motorcycle dispatcher—the only woman in her unit. With a military crest attached to her blue Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, she carried documents between domestic US bases.
Later, in the 1950s, Stringfield settled in Miami, bought a house, and became a nurse. In her early days in Florida, she clashed with the local police. As Stringfield is quoted recalling in a 1996 issue of American Motorcyclist, when she tried to obtain her motorcycle license, the police made it clear that they weren’t about to let a Black woman ride a motorcycle around their city. Determined, Stringfield demanded a meeting with their captain, a white motorcycle cop in the Black precinct. He took her to a nearby park and ordered her to perform several difficult motorcycle tricks. Of course, she nailed them with ease. “From that day on, I didn’t have any trouble from the police, and I got my license too,” she said.
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Stringfield later performed during local races, founded the Iron Horse motorcycle club, and became publicly known as the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” Even in her seventies, she still rode her motorcycle to church, according to the The Miami Herald.
Stringfield died in 1993 at the age of 82 from the complications related to an “enlarged heart,” but she rode right up until her death. According to Ferrar, she told her doctor that she kept riding despite her illness: “I told him if I don’t ride, I won’t live long. And so I never did quit.”
Today, she’s remembered by the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and by the American Motorcycle Association’s Bessie Stringfield Award for individuals who introduce motorcycling to new audiences. Plus, Ferrar has a memoir about her relationship with Stringfield forthcoming.
In the time that Stringfield lived, her lifestyle was utterly taboo; only ten years after white women gained the right to vote, she was breaking conventions by forging a wildly independent path as a Black woman. Ferrar notes in Iron and Air Magazine that “it takes tough mental grit—foresight, planning, and craftiness—to do what Bessie did in the Jim Crow era and get away with it.”