Ann Ferrar and Bessie Stringfield

The Biographer and the Biker: A Summary of Their Times and Intimate Talks Together

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A critically acclaimed book of narrative non-fiction..

"A woman's symphony on the road."

New York Times

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Ebony, Alabaster and Chrome: A Brief History of the Great Bessie Stringfield and Her Biographer Ann Ferrar

© Copyright 1990, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2011, 2017, Ann Ferrar. All Rights Reserved By the Author.

Ann Ferrar, journalist and author of Hear Me Roar, Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road, recorded and preserved the unique oral history of the late African American motorcycling pioneer Bessie B. Stringfield (1911-1993). Here are just a few selected highlights of Bessie's extraordinary life and riding career as told to the author:

Bessie Stringfield rode her Harley-Davidson motorcycles alone in the Deep Southern USA and around the whole country in the pre-Civil Rights era, sometimes facing and overcoming great danger along the way. Stringfield's biographer and friend, Ann Ferrar, concluded that Bessie Stringfield, who bravely persevered no matter what obstacles she faced, broke through racial barriers of the Jim Crow era. According to Ferrar, whether Stringfield knew it or not, Bessie also defied gender barriers had held back other women and girls of all races.

Was Bessie Stringfield an accidental heroine? Ferrar concluded that Bessie's strength of character, her determination and her faith were all no accident. Bessie Stringfield placed herself at great risk from the threats and actions of haters. And yet, according to Ferrar, Bessie survived by learning to be resilient and rise up from the bad times, so that she could thrive during the good times. When all was said and done, Stringfield was a black (biracial) woman of her own mind, with her faith always on her mind and at her back.

Based in South Florida for most of her adult life, Bessie owned 27 Harleys during sixty years of riding, and toured the country eight times on the bumpy, rutted roads of the continent. Bessie was also a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider for the U.S. Army during World War II, serving on the home-front.

Stringfield was known in her younger days for her outgoing and bold personality. Quite a raconteur as an elder, Bessie told the younger writer Ferrar of her ability to perform trick or stunt riding at fairgrounds and motorcycle shows. Disguised as a man, Bessie won a flat track race but was denied the prize when she took off her helmet and shook out her hair. She became a local celebrity (some would say "character") when reporters in South Florida first dubbed her the "Negro Motorcycle Queen" and later the "Motorcycle Queen of Miami."

During Ferrar's recording of Bessie Stringfield's oral history, and the countless other intimate talks between the two women, Ferrar was in awe of, and inspired by, the elder Stringfield. When Ferrar asked Bessie what she recalled of her early childhood, Stringfield described a rough start. Bessie claimed she'd been born in Kingston, Jamaica to a white Dutch mother who died in childbirth. Her father, a biracial West Indian, took her to New England but then abandoned her at age five. Bessie was adopted and raised by a white, Catholic New England family of significant means, according to Ms. Stringfield.

Bessie said she was allowed to get a motorcycle when she was still a teenager. Ferrar -- who had also been raised Catholic, in a protective, Italian-American family -- lifted an eyebrow at the notion that Bessie's devout, adoptive parents let a young black girl have an unladylike, potentially unsafe motorcycle. Bessie had no idea how to ride her first bike, a 1928 Indian Scout, but insisted that The Man Upstairs (Jesus Christ) gave her the skills. And so, off went Bessie on her adventures. According to Ms. Stringfield, her mother simply said, "Just don't get hurt."

By contrast, Ann Ferrar, who was born in the 1950s as the granddaughter of immigrants to Ellis Island, was lucky in adolescence whenever her parents let her out past their picket fence in Brooklyn, New York, where she'd been born. As a young woman, with access to trains and busses throughout the city, Ferrar didn't even earn a driver's license till she was 25. But the first vehicle Ferrar ever owned was not a car; it was a motorcycle.

Ferrar was amazed that Bessie, even in the midst of all her travels and daring exploits, somehow found the time to get married -- six times -- and get divorced - six times! This was another no-no for Catholics especially back then, but Bessie bent the rules a bit. She kept her third husband's surname, Stringfield, at his request, because Bessie had "made it famous." From their many woman-to-woman talks, Ferrar gleaned that beneath the façade of romance, Bessie got bored with, and really had little use for, those of the male gender. Still, Stringfield assured Ferrar that there was one Man that Bessie stayed with until her last breath: The Man Upstairs, to whom she remained devoted.

Always, Stringfield told the younger woman that her faith got her through the tough times on the road. "If you had black skin you couldn’t get a place to stay," she recalled to Ferrar. "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." Bessie laid her jacket on the handlebars as a pillow and rested her feet on the rear fender. She traveled light, telling the younger woman rider that she wore a money belt and carried only spare clothes in her saddlebags. There were no cell phones and video-cams in those days :)

Yet Bessie told Ferrar that she also had many positive and happy encounters with people of all races. She said, “All along the way, wherever I rode, the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman on a motorcycle.” She recalled Southern white gas station owners who were so bowled over by her nerve, they would fill her tanks, wish her luck and refuse to take any money, telling her things like, “You can just have that little bit of gas!”

In the final three years of her life, Bessie Stringfield, then an octogenarian whose health was declining, befriended and developed a special bond with Ferrar, the younger white author and motorcyclist then living in Tribeca, an artists' neighborhood on the lower west side of New York City. A rider-friend of the author smilingly called Ann "The Literary Biker Chick." Ferrar, who was thirty-something when she and Bessie became friends, was also an accomplished, urban biker in her own right. Ferrar had cut her riding teeth in the blare and congestion of hectic Manhattan traffic.

Ferrar was fascinated when Stringfield recounted that at 19, Bessie began tossing a penny over a map and riding to wherever it landed. Over the years, Bessie said she covered the 48 lower states, rode up in Canada and down in South America. Using her natural skills and tomboy, can-do attitude, she did hill climbing and other motorcycle field events that required skill, balance, strength and a competitive spirit. When Bessie finally settled down in Miami, she became a licensed practical nurse (not the same as an RN), and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. They were very active riders and also known for their raucous parties - which took place at Bessie's house, not always to the delight of her neighbors :)

Sometimes, the course of events in life is determined by timing, but Bessie always insisted to her new friend Ferrar, "There ain't no coincidence. The Man Upstairs decides what we do and how it all comes down."

Whether by coincidence or divine intervention, an elderly Bessie Stringfield was in the heartland at the museum of the American Motorcyclist Association, on the very day in the summer of 1990 when Ann Ferrar rode in with members of the Women in the Wind motorcycle club. Bessie and Ann formed an instant bond. With Bessie's blessing and encouragement, Ferrar was inspired to document Bessie's extraordinary life and record her oral history over a three-year time period between their first meeting in 1990 and Bessie's death in 1993. The two women shared many other conversations as well. Ferrar often called Bessie from the road and from her apartment in Tribeca to say hello, check in on Bessie's health, have a few mutual chuckles, engage Bessie's mind, and seek the elder's advice.

Bessie was alone in Florida in her old age. Her largely hidden history and a collection of her favorite vintage photographs were Stringfield's gifts to Ferrar. The author has always treated elders like the treasures that they are. Bessie recognized this, and that is why she trusted Ferrar to preserve her life's legacy and tell it to the world. That is how Bessie came to be featured in Ferrar's magazine writings in the early 1990s, in her 1996 book Hear Me Roar, and how Bessie came to be cherished by the author. And before too long, Bessie was admired by the world far beyond the boundaries of her home state of Florida, due to the world wide web. Bessie had never heard of the Internet, and social media did not even exist yet. Still, when Ferrar's story about Stringfield began to richochet in cyberspace, people were amazed and inspired by Bessie, especially young African American women riders who view her as a role model even today.

When the elder Bessie met Ferrar in 1990, Stringfield was alone at that point in her life in Florida, and enjoyed her many talks with the much younger woman rider-journalist who lived 1,200 miles to the north in the Big Apple. The two women bikers -- the elder a Southern, biracial raconteur and the younger a white, urban Italian-American writer -- might have seemed an unlikely pair of buddies. It was Bessie herself who quipped, "I 'spose we are a pair of salt-and-pepper shakers." Ferrar has remained dedicated to preserving and keeping the elder's story alive in a way that is celebratory and respectful but also historically accurate. (On the web, it has been easy for misinformation to get cut, pasted and circulated, even by folks who mean well.)

During the first three years of the author's journey for Hear Me Roar, while Bessie was still alive, Ferrar shared her modern-day adventures with the elder, who was both frank and generous in imparting her wisdom and honest, no-holds-barred opinions to the junior. They shared their thoughts on everything from racial differences and womanhood in a man's world, to riding motorcycles on clay roads in a thunderstorm, and what to do when your tires get stuck!

The author rode 30,000 miles on her own motorcycle, alone, over a six-year time frame in the early to mid-1990s, to research and write Hear Me Roar. She met, interviewed and photographed hundreds of bikers from coast to coast, met quite a few colorful characters (including Miss Bessie), observed and participated in many colorful events, and had her own adventures and challenges along the way. In sunny California, Ferrar rode the cliff-side curves of the Pacific Coast Highway, and visited the clubhouse of a well-known 1%-er or "outlaw" motorcycle club. (Fortunately, that ended well :)

In 1993, Ann Ferrar rode her motorcycle in the dead of winter from New York to Daytona Bike Week and back. She dodged snowstorms along the East Coast, staying warm in the saddle by wearing a padded vest and gloves with heated coils connected to the battery of her bike. Bessie had always loved Daytona and in her frail, later years, she sometimes drove her car to Bike Week. That year, it was not to be. Bessie died that February.

Bessie Stringfield was posthumously inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame in 2002. To honor the elder's induction, Ferrar adapted her earlier copyrighted bios of Stringfield from Hear Me Roar and from magazines. Ferrar's Induction bio of Bessie was posted on the Hall of Fame website -- just as the Internet was taking off in a big way. Timing intervened once again.

At first, news of the 2002 bio and the earlier, longer version in Hear Me Roar spread like a slow but steady kindling. Two years later, Facebook was founded, followed by You Tube and then Twitter. The spark then exploded into a fire in cyberspace, and from there, words and still images of Bessie's exploits spread all over the Internet and social media. The author started hearing from many folks, from her native New York to Germany and Australia, all wanting to know more about Bessie. Ferrar, a private person, was a bit overwhelmed but gladdened that her early work on Bessie had sparked universal fascination with Stringfield.

Ferrar was asked to appear in several documentary films produced for PBS and The History Channel, in which she spoke of Bessie for segments featuring Stringfield, including American Biker and Glory Road: The Legacy of the African American Motorcyclist. The author gave interviews to CNN and The New York Times and answered questions from museum curators putting motorcycle exhibits together, including exhibits at the Guggenheim in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago. After completing her own book tours and these other assignments, Ferrar took a long, much-needed break, and stayed on the sidelines while researching and writing a special, long-form project. Ferrar has always felt that she, like Bessie, was (still is) essentially an "old soul" who belonged in an earlier era - one reason why the two women clicked so well.

Today, nearly a quarter century after Bessie Stringfield passed away, this outstanding African American/​biracial woman continues to inspire thousands -- perhaps millions -- of fans. But the oft-repeated quotes and sound bites in cyberspace do not reveal the whole story, or even necessarily the true story. How could they? Bessie's fans of today's generation may adore her, but they never met the great lady. Ann Ferrar had the privilege to meet and spend time with Bessie just as the author herself was beginning her own journey on two wheels so long ago.

Even while working on Hear Me Roar, Ferrar was asked to write true stories about her friend Bessie Stringfield in the early 1990s. Ferrar's work on Bessie was published by American Motorcyclist and American Iron magazines, among others. Since those early days, in between the ups and downs of her own life, Ferrar has been quietly engaged in her ongoing research and writing of Bessie's full biography for many years (hence the multiple copyright years). Ferrar's work draws upon primary sources -- her friendship with Bessie and the elder's oral history of course, but also the author's interviews and time spent with some of Bessie's contemporaries who knew Stringfield well. Once again, perhaps it was divine intervention -- from the late Bessie herself? -- that guided the author to find these amazing folks while they were still among us on the earth.

The result of Bessie's trust and friendship with Ferrar, and the recording of Bessie's oral history, alongside the author's own life experiences, is an evolving, unique book that blends Bessie Stringfield's times and intimate talks with Ann Ferrar, as well as their respective adventures and challenges on the road. Part biography and part autobiography, the book explores the two women's individual takes on life and events in American history, which they exchanged with each other.

The African American elder impacted the life and thought processes of the younger white woman in areas of race, ethnic identity, faith, coming into womanhood and growing older in a man's world, Harley-Davidson lore, biker survival tactics, and more. This is their true story -- the whole true story of two vastly different women -- in their own true voices, that only author Ann Ferrar can tell.

In the 21st-century there has been an ever-growing appreciation of black history across the board, including the history of African-American bikers. In 2011, the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee opened a featured exhibit called "Journey of the Iron Elite: A Celebration of African-American Bikers." Ferrar provided some photos of Bessie from her personal collection for the condensed, traveling version of the exhibit.

The author knows that Bessie Stringfield -- who was biracial and big-hearted toward everyone regardless of race -- would be proud of Ferrar's work and of certain other tributes to her memory. Bessie was fond of saying, “I was somethin’. What I did was a lot of fun and I loved it.” She must be smiling down from heaven right now.

© Copyright 1990, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2011, 2017, Ann Ferrar. All Rights Reserved. The viewpoints expressed here are those of the author. No part of this website may be reproduced, scanned or stored in any media or in any form without written permission from, and proper crediting of, the author.

Hear Me Roar, the first book by Ann Ferrar featuring Bessie Stringfield, is the seminal work on American women bikers. Click on book title at left for summary and photo gallery from Roar. Click on "Further Reading" on the menu-bar at top for a link to Ferrar's biography of Bessie Stringfield written for the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame website.

Note: The first edition of Hear Me Roar was published in 1996 by Crown and reissued in 2000 by Whitehorse Press due to popular demand. A reprint, print-on-demand or ebook edition may possibly be published if enough people ask for it!

Bessie Stringfield is seen here in her prime, in her home state of Florida. She is standing proudly with one of her beloved Harley-Davidson touring bikes. She owned 27 of them in her 60-year riding career.

Ann Ferrar is pictured in the early 1990s during the years of her friendship with Bessie Stringfield. Ann often called Bessie from the road to seek the elder's advice. Stringfield relied on The Man Upstairs to keep herself safe. Ferrar relied more on Stringfield to do the same!