In the midst of Jim Crow laws and the associated amounts of discrimination along her way, Bessie Stringfield still set out to explore the United States via motorcycle, making her the first African American woman to ride her motorcycle across the country solo in 1930.
You can call her one of the greatest riders of the 20th century, a period when motorcycle riding was not even “ladylike” by societal norms.
She broke down barriers for both women and African-American motorcyclists, after having started riding at age 19. She was instrumental during the pre and post era of WWII – where she served as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider for the U.S. Army – and rode through pre-civil rights, and pre-interstate highway.
Her feats were great enough that she had a posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame of the American Motorcyclist Association in 2002, almost 10 years after her death in 1993.
Scores of women motorcyclists make a cross-country trek in her honour every year, while she has been memorialized in a comic book. According to the New York Times, she has also been mentioned in a documentary and book about women motorcyclists by Ann Ferrar, a friend who is writing a memoir of her friendship with Stringfield.
Even in the 1950s when Stringfield had ended her motorcycle odysseys across America, she continued to ride locally in Miami, Florida, earning her the title “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”
Her origins are somehow unclear, though varying accounts state that she was born Betsy Leonora Ellis on February 9, 1911, in Kingston, Jamaica.
She was the daughter of Maria Ellis, a domestic servant, and James Ferguson, her employer. Betsy and her parents migrated to Boston, Massachusetts, but both of her parents died of smallpox when she was just 5 years old. She was adopted by a wealthy Irish woman who raised her as a Catholic.
Sources say that they loved and cared for her that when she asked for a motorcycle for her 16th birthday, the adopted family gave her a new Indian Scout 101. Without any knowledge of how to control the bike, Stringfield taught herself how to ride it and at 19, she began her cross-country tour by hog.
“She flipped a penny onto a map of the country to determine her destination and off she went. By 1930, she became the first African-American woman known to have travelled via motorcycle to all 48 states in the continental United States,” according to accounts by ati.
This is amazing considering the odds were against her at the time. Between the 1930s and the early 1940s, Stringfield earned money from doing motorcycle stunts at carnivals and county fairs. She also competed in flat track events and hill climb.
However, her skin colour did not favour her during her travels, as she was often denied accommodations and was forced to sleep on her motorcycle at fuel stations.
“If you had black skin you couldn’t get a place to stay. 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,” Stringfield said.
“Colored people couldn’t stop at hotels or motels back then. But it never bothered me.”
Her tours took her through the Great Depression and to trips to Haiti, Brazil and Europe, according to accounts by RideApart.
While working for the U.S. Army as a civilian dispatch rider, Stringfield carried documents between domestic bases on her Harley-Davidson bike, a period when roads were hardly paved, marked or lit.
Despite being the only woman in her unit, she completed the arduous training maneuvres including learning how to weave a makeshift bridge from rope and tree limbs to cross swamps, according to BlackPast.
But being black, she faced racial prejudice while on the road to the extent that she was once deliberately knocked off her bike by a man in a pickup truck
Stringfield would, in the midst of her travels, marry and divorce six times, and would decide to keep the third of her husband’s surname (Arthur Stringfield) after the latter had asked her to keep it because she had made the name famous.
By 1950, after the war, Stringfield had settled in Miami, Florida, where she trained and got a job as a nurse. She befriended the families that employed her, and one of them – Robert Scott Thomas – would later be named the beneficiary and the executor of her estate in her will as she had no survivors.
While in Florida, Stringfield founded the Iron Horse motorcycle club, with which she continued to ride with until she was in her 80s.
Some of the stories told during that period were that Stringfield won a local motorcycle race while disguised as a man. However, she was denied the prize money when she took off her helmet to reveal her identity. She also demanded a one-on-one test of motorcycle skills from a local police chief to prevent his officers from harassing her for riding through his town.
In subsequent years, when the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) opened the first Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Pickerington, Ohio, in 1990, Stringfield was featured in its inaugural exhibit on Women in Motorcycling.
Three years later, the motorcycle queen passed away in Florida from symptoms caused by an enlarged heart at the age of 82.
A decade after her death, the AMA instituted the Bessie Stringfield Award to honour women who are leaders in motorcycling.
It is said that during her days in motorcycling, Stringfield was noted for some of her amazing antics including riding her bike while standing in its saddle. Her pet dogs usually paraded with her on her motorcycle as well.