Bessie Stringfield: Behind Her Biography by Ann Ferrar

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How One Author Is Preserving the Legacy of Bessie Stringfield in an Intimate Biography, Through the Prism of Race, Gender, Life on the Road, and the Recording of Stringfield's Oral History

All Content © Copyright 1990, 1993, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2011, 2016, 2017, Ann Ferrar. All rights reserved by the author. This article contains previews of selected excerpts from the forthcoming biography/​memoir of Bessie Stringfield by Ann Ferrar. This content also contains excerpts from the author's previously published works on Bessie Stringfield. Please see detailed copyright notice about intellectual property and restrictions at the end of this article. Thank you for this courtesy.

African American motorcycling pioneer Bessie B. Stringfield (1911-1993) made her unique mark on black and women's history by riding her Harley-Davidsons around the country in the pre-Civil Rights era. Traveling alone on Milwaukee iron, "Bessie broke through racial and gender barriers, despite the challenges and dangers imposed by segregation and prevailing attitudes in the southern USA," says Ann Ferrar, the New York journalist, biker and friend of Stringfield's who recorded Bessie's oral history. The two women bonded and enjoyed an unusual friendship during the last three years of Stringfield's life.

Bessie Stringfield served on the homefront as a civilian motorcycle courier for the U.S. Army during World War II. Aboard her own 1200cc Harley with a borrowed military crest on the front, she was the only woman in a unit of six other black riders. Bessie also did trick or stunt riding at fairgrounds, and competed in rough-and-tumble field events like hill-climbing. Says Ferrar, "Disguised as a man, Bessie even tried her hand at flat-track motorcycle racing on a dirt track, not a sport for the timid. She got beat sometimes, but one day, Bessie won. She was denied the prize money when she took off her helmet and shook out her hair."

Bessie chose Miami as her home base beginning in the 1950s, and later founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club in the 1960s. Says Ferrar, "Bessie presided over a group of black working men and insisted they wear uniforms for group rides. But she herself was no conformist. Bessie got a kick from being the center of attention. She sometimes paraded down the streets standing in the saddle of her Harley. At other times she cruised with her two little poodle dogs on her lap. She enjoyed telling anyone who would listen, 'I was somethin'. She told me, 'I was raisin' the devil on a motorcycle.'"

Locally, Bessie became known as "The Negro Motorcycle Queen" and later as "The Motorcycle Queen of Miami." Stringfield had her fans, but, says the author, "Bessie conceded to me that not everyone in her neighborhood approved of the mischief and the gatherings at her house, which was used as the clubhouse for Iron Horse meetings and parties. In a relatively quiet corner of greater Miami, Bessie's bikers were a spectacle but a loud one."

At the same time, Bessie also had a softer, caring side. She earned her practical nursing license and worked at various times as an LPN or nurses' aide until her retirement. "Bessie was a lifelong Harley girl," says Ferrar, "so it was not unusual for her to ride her Harley to work."

Stringfield confided all of this and much more to the author in the early 1990s. With Bessie's blessing and encouragement, Ferrar recorded and preserved Stringfield's oral history, becoming the only author to do so. The two women shared many intimate talks over the last three years of Stringfield's extraordinary life. Ferrar often called Bessie from lonely motel rooms on the road during her own solo, modern-day motorcycle travels. "My problems were miniscule compared to what Bessie had endured," says the author. "I was never denied a motel room because of my skin color and I never had to sleep on my bike at a gas station." Still, the elder gave the younger biker advice and solace. The younger biker, in turn, gave the elder plenty to chuckle about with tales of her modern mishaps and small triumphs. Stringfield asked Ferrar to keep the elder's legacy alive, and the author promised to do so.

"For me, it was a gift to have a relationship with a beloved elder," says Ferrar. "Our elders are living history, especially Bessie Stringfield. She saw the whole country and lived through events from a vantage point that was unheard of for an African American woman: the saddle of a Harley. You need to be patient and just listen. If you have the chance to put down your cell phone and strike up a conversation with a talkative elder who has a hidden history just waiting to be heard, you will be transfixed, as I was with Bessie."

Bessie told Ferrar that she had been born in the Caribbean and had biracial roots. She said her mother, who was white, died when Bessie was an infant. Stringfield was brought to the United States by her biological father, who abandoned her in New England when she was only five. Says Ferrar, "I remember that conversation well. There was still hurt and pain in Bessie's voice as she told me of that memory. Her whole life, which was filled with achievements and joie de vivre, dissipated in the emotion of that single memory. Then Bessie bounced back after a pause. She recalled how she was taken in by a white Catholic family and raised with kindness."

The author muses, "Still, I believe a lingering sense of abandonment steeled Bessie. From the time she was a teenager, she had an independent nature." In adulthood, that trait had its pros and cons. For starters, Bessie married and divorced six times, and it took her well until mid-life to settle down. "On the subject of men, Bessie had a dry sense of humor," continues the author. "It was pretty funny when she quipped 'I never bought anything used, except husbands.'" Bessie kept the surname of her third (late) husband at his request; he said she had "made it famous."

Ferrar adds, "Despite all the marriages and no shortage of male company in between, beneath it all, Bessie was essentially lonely, as many of us are, if we admit to it. Bessie confided to me, 'I spent my life alone, lookin' for a family. I found my family in motorcycling.'" And she did, for a while, with her Iron Horse crew. The author says, "They were very active bikers, riding to favorite spots in Florida like Daytona Beach and Key West, and they rode out-of-state as well."

Ferrar adds, "But as with most things in life, all good things come to an end. When Bessie's workload got too heavy, she stepped down as head of the club for that and for other personal reasons." Without Bessie at the helm, the club disbanded. Bessie kept riding her Harleys to points near and far, but the glory days of the Iron Horse were mostly a thing of the past.

Stringfield told the author that she owned 27 different Harleys during her 60-year riding career that took her around the United States eight times. Bessie was still a teenager when her adoptive mother granted the girl's wish to get her first bike, which was actually a 1928 Indian Scout. Bessie recalled with a chuckle, “Good girls didn’t ride a motorcycle, but I said I wanted it, and I got it!”

Bessie didn't know how to ride and had to figure it out on her own. Says Ferrar, "Bessie insisted that she didn't learn by herself. The Man Upstairs -- her nickname for Jesus -- taught her what to do." Bessie left letters to The Man Upstairs under her pillow and during her sleep, she dreamt of operating the controls.

"When she got on the bike during the day," says the author, "miraculously, because of her faith, the girl knew what to do. I was raised Catholic too; it was one of the things that Bessie and I had in common and it was a running thread in our talks. But still, I was skeptical. Bessie insisted to me, 'That's how faith works.'"

Ferrar continues, "When Bessie was old enough to leave home with her mother's blessing, she tossed a penny over a map and rode solo to wherever it landed. Those were her gypsy tours -- unplanned, open-ended rides. During one trip, Bessie rode the Scout inside a vintage Wall of Death. This was a carnival attraction, basically a giant barrel. Bessie rode up the wall and used speed, balance, momentum and centrifugal force to stay up. The lady had guts."

By 1930, Bessie had replaced the Indian with her first Harley, a compact 750cc machine. "She had to contend with rutted, muddy roads and mechanical issues as much as anything else," continues Ferrar. "Make no mistake, Bessie had some unplanned dismounts. She got scraped up a few times and her Harleys got damaged, but this woman got right back on. She was a free spirit doing her own thing in the 1930s and 1940s, an era when most women, especially women of color, were not given that opportunity."

Continues the author, "Early on in my writings, I referred to Bessie Stringfield as a one-woman civil rights movement, in lower case letters." That phrase has been repeated often by others; it has even appeared as an internet sound-bite.

"What I actually meant was this," Ferrar explains. "Bessie was one woman of color, exercising her right to personal freedom regardless of her race or gender. She was not a standard-bearer in the organized Civil Rights or women's movements. How could she be? Bessie predated both of those movements. She was a solo act and ahead of her time. Bessie was a courageous, intelligent individual. In my view, Bessie Stringfield was One Fantastic Woman, in Capital Letters."

The selective information that has been picked up and repeated ad infinitum around the Internet and other media has been derived -- mostly without citation of the source -- from Ferrar's original, early writings on Bessie Stringfield. But there is more about Bessie that the author has not yet published.

"I've sat back quietly, noting many comments on social media and other venues," observes Ferrar. "Thousands of people are inspired by Bessie's boldness and now she has a huge fan base, which is great for keeping her legacy alive. Some folks are proud of Bessie for being what they call a badass woman. I can live with that when it comes from people with good hearts who respect Bessie's memory. But it makes me wince when others use it to paint this woman of integrity as an outlaw or a rebel. That is exploitative and it is false. It's not who the lady was."

Adds the author: "Bessie Stringfield was bold but always dignified. I knew Bessie at a time when she was able to reflect back on her life. She generously gave me a window through which I viewed her as a whole person. So I can tell you that Bessie Stringfield cannot be defined by any label because she was a unique individual. Bessie used her brains, not always her boldness, to outsmart Jim Crow. She also dealt with men who preferred her to stay in the kitchen. There are all kinds of courage, and the self-respect of a strong-minded woman can rise in ways you might not expect."

Stringfield's ties to her adoptive family did not last throughout her life, but she retained an unwavering Catholic faith until the end. Just as she believed that The Man Upstairs had taught her to ride, Bessie believed that He always kept her safe on the road.

"If you had black skin, you couldn't find a place to stay," Bessie recalled to the author. "When I found black folks, I'd sleep next to their children because no one would rent me a motel room." Sometimes she slept on the bike itself at gas stations, using her rolled-up jacket on the handlebars as a makeshift pillow, and resting her feet on the rear fender.

She told Ferrar about close calls with the Klan and other random bigots in the South. At the same time, Stringfield emphatically wanted it known that she also had many positive and happy encounters on the road with people of all races. "All along the way," said Bessie, "wherever I rode, the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motorcycle." Her use of the word Negro was reflective of her generation.

Some white gas station owners were cordial and filled her tanks for free. Smilingly they wished her luck. Says Ferrar, "They were friendly partly because they, too, were astounded by Bessie's nerve and genuinely wished her well. Bessie knew that. But I believe that in the South, at least some white folks wanted Bessie on her way for fear of Klansmen watching them being kind to her."

Fast-forward to 1990. That was the year that Bessie Stringfield, then aged 79, first met Ann Ferrar, the white writer-biker from New York City, then in her thirties. The two women met in the heartland -- in Ohio, at the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Heritage Museum. The occasion was the museum's first exhibit on the history of female bikers. Stringfield and Ferrar began a conversation in front of an artistic display panel that depicted a robust Stringfield in her younger years, leaning on her Harley. Their conversation continued for the next three years.

Stringfield had no children and no relatives. She couldn't share biker stories with the few remaining ladies she knew from church. Bessie developed an unusual friendship with Ferrar, akin on some levels to that of a grandmother and an adult granddaughter who looked up to the elder. It began with a common interest in motorcycling and women's place in it, but their friendship evolved into an ongoing rapport with banter, which transcended their racial, regional, ethnic and generational differences. Stringfield reflected on her extraordinary life, and Ferrar captured and preserved Bessie's memories while there was still time.

Ferrar made a promise to Stringfield to keep the elder's legacy alive, and she did, by writing a series of magazine articles about Bessie published in the early 1990s. Stringfield was also featured in Ferrar's first book of narrative non-fiction, Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road, published by Crown, a Random House division, in 1996. And when Bessie was posthumously inducted into the AMA Heritage Museum's Hall of Fame in 2002, Ferrar's condensed biography of Bessie was posted, and has been kept, on the museum's website for the world to read.

Since then, via these print and online conduits, word of Bessie Stringfield's life and achievements has spread exponentially around the world wide web. Among a new generation, Bessie has even gone viral in one or more online venues. Some educators are starting to introduce Bessie to children. A clever manifestation of Bessie's influence is the annual Bessie Stringfield All-Female Ride, a three-day event that takes place at a different U.S. location each year. Participants are given a "Bessie Passport" with various destinations and are encouraged to ride there.

Over the years, a great many people have asked Ferrar to write a book-length biography of her friend and mentor, Bessie Stringfield. All good things happen in their time. "Bessie led a fascinating life," says the author, "but there were certain aspects of it, some events and people from her past, that Bessie wanted me to keep off the record until after she was gone. That was not an unusual request. It's been a quarter-century and I have respected Bessie's wishes. Now, it's time."

Ferrar is drawing upon her personal knowledge of Bessie Stringfield, as well as the only recorded oral history of Bessie known to exist, plus other primary sources who were close to Stringfield and are no longer among us. With all this, Ferrar is able to paint a fuller, humanistic portrait of the woman who has inspired tens of thousands of admirers around the world, and yet who still remains largely unknown.

Bessie Stringfield died of a chronic heart condition in 1993 at the age of 82. Recalls the author, "Not too long before the end, Bessie told me, 'My heart is three times the size it’s supposed to be.' I have always felt this was, and still is, an apt metaphor for an unconventional woman whose heart, soul and spirited determination have touched so many lives."

Still, just who was Bessie Stringfield, the woman, the person - the icon who has inspired a new generation? Check back at a later date and you will be redirected to a new site, where you will learn more about Ferrar's forthcoming biography/​memoir of Bessie Stringfield.

Until then ...

© Copyright 1990, 1993, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2011, 2016, 2017, Ann Ferrar. All rights to all contents in their entirety are reserved by the author. This biography contains previews of selected excerpts from the forthcoming full-length biography/​memoir of Bessie Stringfield by Ann Ferrar. Parts of this article are also adapted from Ferrar’s book “Hear Me Roar” and from other previously published works on Bessie Stringfield by Ann Ferrar. Cutting and pasting the author's intellectual property elsewhere without attributing the author by name as the source is prohibited. Quoting, paraphrasing, repackaging, storing, displaying, performing or adapting the author’s material to other media without obtaining prior written permission from the author, and citing her as the source, are prohibited. All click-for-profit and other profit-based uses are strictly prohibited. The true story of Bessie Stringfield as written, quoted, interpreted, presented and disseminated by Ann Ferrar is protected by U.S. and International Copyright Laws. Your courtesy and cooperation are appreciated.
Bessie Stringfield in her prime in her home state of Florida. Vivacious and robust in her middle years, Bessie stood beaming with one of her beloved Harley-Davidson touring bikes. She owned 27 different Harleys and one Indian during her 60-year riding career. She rode around the United States eight times, and worked as a civilian motorcycle courier for the U.S. Army during World War II.

The elder Bessie Stringfield at age 79, with author Ann Ferrar at the American Motorcyclist Association Heritage Museum in Ohio. Bessie is still wearing the blue and white uniform that she designed for her Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, which she founded in the 1960s. The two women met in 1990 at the museum's exhibit on the history of women bikers. A youthful portrait of Bessie is displayed next to Bessie herself. Stringfield kept this snapshot on top of her TV set at home. Ferrar still keeps her copy at her writing desk, the perfect spot to draw inspiration from her mentor. The author also cherishes the tiny, yellowed pocket version of the New Testament that Stringfield carried on the road. Bessie passed it on to Ferrar as a gift of remembrance and for solace during her modern-day travels.