forgottennewsmakers

BESSIE STRINGFIELD (1911 – 1993) First African American Woman to Ride a Motorcycle Solo Across America

In adventure, African-American women, American History, Feminists, History, Motorcycles, U.S. Army, women on June 14, 2017 at 2:42 PM

The only place Bessie Stringfield truly felt at home was on the seat of her motorcycle. At a young age, her life was defined by where she was headed next. Her first trip was when she was five years old. Betsy Leonora Ellis and her parents, a domestic servant and her employer, left Jamaica for Boston. Shortly after arriving in America, Stringfield’s mom Bessie Stringfielddied. Her father didn’t know how to cope with the responsibilities of a child, so he abandoned her. Stringfield’s next stop was a Catholic orphanage where she stayed for a few years. There weren’t many people willing to adopt a black child, but she didn’t stop praying for a new family. Finally God answered her prayers. When the owner of the orphanage handed Stringfield off to her wealthy Irish Catholic mother, she used a racial slur to describe the little girl. But the new mom didn’t show any prejudice against her daughter’s ethnicity. In her new house, Stringfield had her own room and all the things other children had.

When she became a teenager, Stringfield tried riding the motorcycle of an upstairs neighbor, and she wanted one of her own. Her mother reminded her that nice girls don’t go around riding on motorcycles. Stringfield was persistent and asked for a motorcycle for her 16th birthday. Her mom couldn’t refuse her and gave her a 1928 Indian Scout. Never mind Stringfield had no idea how to ride it. God had answered all her prayers so far, so Stringfield, “…wrote letters to the Man Upstairs, Jesus Christ. I put the letters under my pillow and He taught me. One night in my sleep, I saw myself shifting gears and riding around the block. When I got out on the street, that’s just what I did” (qtd Ferrar 31).

BORN TO BE WILD                        Right after high school graduation, Stringfield took off on her bike to explore all around New England, coming back to Boston only for short visits. It didn’t take long for her to want more adventure. She started what she called her “penny tours.” She spread out a map and tossed a penny onto it. Wherever it landed would be her next destination. In 1930, at age 19 she took six months to ride solo across the country. This was the first of eight cross-country trips, and she eventually rode through all lower 48 states. Later that year she exchanged her Indian for a Harley Davidson, the first of 27 Harleys she owned. The only things she carried with her on the road were her leather jacket, a money belt and extra clothes that fit into the saddlebags.

Stringfield understood how unusual it was for a single, African American woman to travel alone on a motorcycle. “All along the way wherever I rode, the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motorcycle” (qtd Ferrar 31). She said she was never afraid on the road because the Man Upstairs was always with her. She used The Negro Motorist Green Book to find safe places to stay and eat in the Jim Crow south. When she couldn’t find black folks to stay with she slept on her motorcycle in gas stations. She rested her head on the handlebars with her jacket as a pillow and her feetBessieStringfield2 on the rear fender. She did encounter racism, but it didn’t stop her from going anywhere. One time at Stone Mountain in Georgia she was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The only way to avoid them was to jump on her bike and escape faster than they could chase her. She was afraid, but afterward she felt invincible. Her bike was like wings carrying her to safety.

FOR LOVE AND MONEY              Just because Stringfield traveled alone didn’t mean she didn’t find romance. She made the effort to do her hair and makeup every day and attracted men everywhere she went. She had six husbands who tried to tame her, and she divorced them all. All except one were about 20 years younger. She and her first husband had three children, but all of them died young. Her third husband, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, asked his wife to always keep his last name because she was going to make it famous. Stringfield obliged.

Stringfield needed a way to pay her expenses, so she turned her hobby into a moneymaker. She was hired at carnivals and fairs as a stunt rider and billed as the Negro Motorcycle Queen. Her stunts included riding side saddle, standing on one foot peg, laying down on the bike, jumping from one side of the bike to the other while riding, and the Wall of Death, where she got up enough speed to ride sideways and upside down in a round cage.

Stringfield ended up in Opa-locka, Florida, a suburb of Miami, and started spending more time there. The local police captain, Robert Jackson, didn’t know what to make of her. He challenged Stringfield to get her bike up to speed, slip off the back and run to catch it and get back on. She did it easily and earned his respect and the right to call him Captain Jack.

On a hot day during World War II, Stringfield went into a movie theatre to cool down. She watched a newsreel showing women helping the war effort. Stringfield was inspired to find a way to serve her country with her talent. As a civilian she joined a black motorcycle dispatch unit of the army as the only woman. She had to pass a grueling training which included riding up a sandy, ninety degree hill and then making a hairpin turn on the crest, and learning how to weave a bridge with tree limbs in order to cross over a swamp, a skill she never actually needed to use. Her trainer was Captain Jack. From 1941 to 1945 Stringfield delivered classified documents to military bases across the country. Even with a military crest on the front of her motorcycle, she still encountered racism. One time a man in a pickup truck ran her off the road and knocked her off her bike. She took these incidents in stride as part of the ups and downs of the experience.

SETTLING DOWN              After the war Stringfield spent time in Europe riding around the allied countries before heading back to Florida. In the late 1950s, she finally settled down, buying a house and working. Her first job was as a private cook, but then she went to school to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Having steady employment did not keep her from riding. She founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club and used her house a place for riders to hang out together. The local press dubbed her the Motorcycle BessieStringfield4Queen of Miami, and she was often seen leading parades with one of her poodles riding on each knee. On Sundays she rode her motorcycle to mass at the Catholic church.

In the late 1980s Stringfield’s favorite bike, a Harley 1978 FLH, was vandalized in an attempted robbery. She didn’t have enough money to repair it, and she considered selling her house to buy a new one. She said, “It’s got to be blue and it’s got to be new. I never bought anything used – except husbands” (qtd Ferrar 32). Instead, she borrowed or rented a Harley when she wanted to ride.

During her lifetime and posthumously, Stringfield received the recognition she deserved for her accomplishments and bravery as a motorcyclist. The Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Ohio opened in 1990 and featured Stringfield in their inaugural exhibit. In 2000 the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) named an award after her, given to women who distinguish themselves as leaders in motorcycling. She was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2002.

Stringfield was 81 years old when she died from complications of an enlarged heart in 1993. She was adamant about not having a service, but people from the community congregated to honor her anyway. There were other bikers in attendance, and one man came all the way from Texas to pay his respects. In reflecting on her untraditional life Springfield said, “I spent most of my life alone, lookin’ for a family. I found my family in motorcycling” (qtd Ferrar 32).

QUESTION: What is the most adventurous thing you can imagine doing? What is keeping you from doing it?

© 2017 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Ferrar, Ann, Hear Me Roar, Women Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road. New Hampshire: Whitehorse Press, 2000.

Gill, Joel Christian, Bessie Stringfield: Tales of the Talented Tenth. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2016.

http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame

http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/bessie-stringfield-motorcycle-queen

https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=165444982&ref=acom

Camacho, Maria A. “Bessie Stringfield.” Miami Herald 20 February, 1993: B4. nl.newsbank.com

 

 

 

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SAKE DEAN MAHOMED (1759 – 1851) First Indian to Publish a Book, Own a Restaurant and Do “Shampooing” in England

In Entrepreneurs, Inventions, People from England on December 29, 2013 at 1:31 PM

Sometimes a person’s place is his destiny. Dean Mahomed hailed from India, and, although he

Sake Dean Mahomed

Sake Dean Mahomed

left his homeland at age 25, he used that culture, and some clever publicity, to create a life for himself in England.

Mahomed was born in Patna, Bihar, India. When he was only eleven years old, he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the East India Company Army, serving under British Captain Godfrey Baker. After 13 years of active duty, Mahomed followed Baker, who had become his close friend, when he returned to Ireland. Baker treated Mahomed as a son and paid for him to go to school where he primarily studied English language and literature.

Another student, Jane Daly, caught Mahomed’s eye. The same year his patron Baker died, Mahomed and Jane eloped. Mahomed most certainly had converted from Islam to Protestantism, but since Protestant / Catholic marriages were illegal, he posted a bond to insure the church would not be liable in the event their marriage was deemed illegal. Perhaps that helped the community accept their multi-cultural union (Indian and Irish) as well.

READ ALL ABOUT IT         Mahomed first received public recognition in his new homeland by publishing his autobiography titled The Travels of Dean Mahomed, a native in Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of the Honorable The East India Company. He was the first Indian to publish a book in English. Even though Britain had been in India for decades, Mahomed’s personal account was the first opportunity for Britons to glimpse life there from a native’s point of view.

After achieving some notoriety, Mahomed and his growing family moved to London in search of more lucrative opportunities. Instead of living among the merchants who traded with India, they settled in Portman Square, a hub for high society.  His first job was as an assistant in Sir Basil Cochrane’s vapor bath, similar to a steam bath today. Mahomed enhanced the bath with a practice that elaborated on “champi,” a derivative of the Hindi word champissage for a head massage.1 (Champi become anglicized as “shampooing.”) This treatment involved first lying in an herbal steam bath. When the patient was sweating, he was placed in a flannel tent with sleeves. The practitioner, who was outside the tent, put his arms through the sleeves to give an invigorating massage.

TRYING TO CURRY FAVOR WITH THE LOCALS      When he had enough money to start his own business, Mahomed decided to exploit his Indian background in a different way by opening a restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, on the west side of London. As the first Indian owner of a curry house, he offered his customers an authentic Indian experience with

Plaque commemorating location of Hindoostane Coffee House

Plaque commemorating location of Hindoostane Coffee House

bamboo furniture, curry, and hookahs with real Chilm tobacco. He hoped the nabobs (Britons who had served in India and then returned to Britain) would miss the cuisine they learned to love and flock to his cafe. Unfortunately, an already established restaurant on the east side of town, and the Indian servants of the local aristocracy who cooked their native dishes for their employers, proved to be too much competition. Mahomed was forced to take on a partner, and then ended up declaring bankruptcy.

By now Mahomed was in his fifties. He moved his family to Brighton, and the only work he could find was as a manager in a bathhouse. He began reinventing himself as the “Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapour Baths … by whom the Art of Shampooing was first introduced into England in 1784.” 2

RECREATING HIMSELF          Again cashing in on being Indian, Mahomed added the title Sake, a variation of sheik, to his name. In addition, to legitimize himself, he embellished his background to include medical training in India before he joined the army. To make this plausible Mahomed added ten years on to his age.

He started advertising his Indian oils and herbal treatments as a cure-all for various ailments. At first, the public and the medical community dismissed his claims as bogus, but he offered free treatment for patients who were not getting relief from diseases such as asthma, paralysis and rheumatism in other ways. Soon the lobby of his bathhouse displayed crutches and other paraphernalia of those he claimed to cure. He published the descriptions of his treatments and testimonials of his patients who claimed to be cured. From then on business was booming and he was known as Dr. Brighton.

In 1815, Mahomed’s family expanded with three more sons, and he started working in the Battery House Baths. Soon after that, a son and daughter died.

THE BUSINESS OF HEALING      Mahomed wanted his own establishment, so in 1821 he and Jane opened Mohamed’s Baths near the waterfront. Ladies and gentlemen had their facilities on separate floors. Each floor had a reading room with various appropriate journals and a parlor for the clients while they waited for their treatments. Each floor had four bathing rooms had a marble bath with hot and cold water, and two of the bathing rooms were set up for the vapor, shampooing treatment. On the top floor there were five bedrooms for anyone who wanted to stay longer for more intense treatment. Two men and three women lived on the premises as bath attendants and servants.

This luxurious facility attracted an upper class clientele of aristocracy. Even Kings George IV and William IV patronized Mahomed’s Baths and benefited from the treatments. This led to Mahomed’s appointment as Shampooing Surgeon to the King, and he was giving a Royal Warrant so that he could officially promote himself as giving treatment to the royal family.

In addition to his work, Mahomed was very generous donor to local charities and the official Steward for the Annual Charity Ball. He was a colorful part of local society, especially when dressed in the costume modeled on the Mughal court dress, even at the horse races.

In the 1930s, however, competition started taking its toll. Although he was in his late 70s, Mahomed opened another bath back in London with his son. A few years later, his silent partner in Brighton died, and the establishment went up for auction. Mahomed did not have enough money to buy it himself, and the new owner hired Mahomed’s former employees and claimed to give identical treatments to those of the former owner. Mahomed tried to disassociate himself with the new owner through newspaper ads, and he and Jane continued to treat patients in their home.

Gradually Mahomed fell farther out of favor and became all but forgotten. He died at age 92, only two months after Jane passed away. Several of their sons followed in the family business but none ever developed the reputation their father had enjoyed.

QUESTION: How has your background or family heritage influenced your life?

© 2013 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champi

2 http://www.movinghere.org.uk/galleries/roots/asian/tracingasianroots/dean_mahomed3.htm#

http://www.movinghere.org.uk/galleries/roots/asian/tracingasianroots/dean_mahomed.htm

http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft4h4nb20n&chunk.id=ch3&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ch3&brand=eschol

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/london/4290124.stm

http://www.menumagazine.co.uk/book/deanmahomed.html

http://www.black-history.org.uk/doctorbrighton.asp

http://mortiquarian.com/2011/09/09/a-life-too-full-to-fit-sake-dean-mahomet/

http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page_id__11174_path__0p117p158p.aspx

http://mentalfloss.com/article/53008/sheikh-shampoo

Mohamed, Dean, The Travels of Dean Mahomet. http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft4h4nb20n&chunk.id=ch2&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ch2&brand=eschol

 

Photo credits:

http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page_id__11174.aspx

https://www.google.com/search?q=Hindoostane+Coffee+House&client=firefox-a&hs=XcQ&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=Dm6_Up36DtjboASR14GYDQ&ved=0CEEQsAQ&biw=1147&bih=846

 

MAY SUTTON BUNDY (1887 – 1975) First American to Win Wimbledon

In Female Athletes, Feminists, People from England, Sports, women on October 14, 2013 at 10:42 AM

When May Sutton was born in Plymouth, England she was already above average, weighing in at fifteen pounds. Her father,

May Sutton Bundy

May Sutton Bundy

Adolphus DeGrouchy Sutton, was a retired British navy captain, and he named his daughter, the youngest of seven, May, after his own yacht.

When Bundy was six, the Suttons transplanted themselves to Pasadena, California where they had a ten-acre orange grove. Bundy and her siblings, with the help of their neighbors, built their own tennis court by hauling clay from a local canyon. The court had a little slope, which required running uphill to make some shots.

It wasn’t common at that time to take tennis lessons, so the Sutton children learned to play on their own in England. Bundy used her older sister’s warped wood racquet for tennis, cricket and croquet. The Sutton sisters dressed in typical tennis attire, which included a pair of bloomers, two petticoats, a long undershirt, a white shirt, long white silk stockings, and a floppy hat.

A WINNING FORMULA         Bundy won her first tournament when she was twelve, beating her older sister Ethel. A year later she won the Pacific Southwest title for the first time against a 22 year old, and then went on to win it eight more times.

Because of Bundy’s size, what she lacked in speed and power she more than made up for with her strong forehand, accuracy and relentlessness.  As her sister Florence described her, “May’s strength as a tennis player lies principally in her unrelenting persistency. She never lets anybody beat her and discourages her opponent by always getting the ball back, no matter where you put it.”1

In 1904, at 17 years old, Bundy proved that her previous wins were more than just luck. She won the United States women’s title as the youngest women’s champion to date. The prize was a gold watch with a chain covered in topaz stones. Bundy held that record as long as she was alive, until Tracy Austin beat it in 1979 at 16 years and nine months old. The subsequent years add many more titles to her resume.

BEATING THE BRITISH        The year after her record-setting win in America, Bundy crossed the pond to play in Wimbledon, the first American to compete in the historic tournament.  She wore the requisite white skirt with stockings and hard-soled shoes topped by a long-sleeved white blouse. For the occasion she had a large bow in her hair. She was not a dainty lady, weighing a muscular 160 pounds.

May Sutton playing at Wimbledon

May Sutton playing at Wimbledon

If the British had any resentment over an American participating in the      tournament, she did nothing but make matters worse. First, her skirt was short enough to expose her ankles. Second, she shocked all in attendance by rolling up her sleeves to her elbows during play. Third, she had the unmitigated gall to win the women’s championship, beating England’s beloved Dorothea Chambers. One newspaper reported that Bundy’s win was so upsetting that the future King George V cried in the royal box. The following year Bundy lost to Chambers, but in 1907, Bundy regained the championship title.

In 1908, Bundy was recognized for her talent and appreciated for her victories in England in a singular way. She was selected to be the Queen of the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, and she was the first sports celebrity to receive that honor. She carried a pink parasol as she rode along the parade route, accompanied by her sister Florence as one of the princesses.

A LOVE MATCH        Bundy often said she would not marry a man who could not beat her in tennis. Thomas Clark Bundy, a multiple national doubles and singles champion, proved to be suitable, and Bundy was 25 when they married. Mr. Bundy’s focus had shifted from sports to real estate, and he was responsible for developing 2000 acres in the San Fernando Valley and La Brea – Wilshire area. Bundy Drive is named after him.

The Bundys had four children, but being a wife and mother didn’t distract Bundy from tennis. A few months after the birth of her second child, she won a Long Beach charity event after being down one set against a much younger opponent who was the national champion. Later that year, Bundy won the Southern California title for the eighth time.

In 1920, Thomas Bundy paid $1,000 for five and a half acres to develop the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Bundy taught lessons at the club and often played against celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. The Bundys also had a private tennis court at their home in Santa Monica, California, the first court ever to be painted green.

Bundy turned pro in 1930 at age 42. Eight years later she was named one of America’s most influential feminists along with actress Norma Shearer and pilot Amelia Earhart. While her professional life was thriving, there was chaos in her private life. After a long separation, the Bundys divorced in 1940.

AGE IS JUST A NUMBER        Bundy never stopped playing tennis. In 1968 she played doubles with her daughter, Dorothy Cheney, who was the first American woman to win the Australian Championships. Bundy was 80 years old, and her daughter was 51. Both ladies wore stylish white, floppy hats on the court.

In what was dubbed as the “Age vs. Youth” tournament in 1973, Bundy faced opponents who were about half her age, and she dominated them to be called the “most durable athlete of the century.” Two years later, at age 88, Bundy played, and won, her last match, a few months before her death.

In describing her own success, she said, “Of course I play to win. That is the only way one can improve and draw the other party out to their best game. … I think that one half of ability to play tennis is confidence bordering on recklessness, and the other half is accuracy. Speed has far less to do with the game than accuracy in placing, for it is in the latter that the higher-class game is won or lost. A few good strokes will meet all emergencies of the game and make one just as hard to beat as if he had fancy pick-ups and foxy cuts.”1   Bundy was given the ultimate recognition for her achievement by being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association Hall of Fame.

QUESTION: What are your best qualities that help you succeed?

© 2013 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

 SOURCES:

1 http://www.cemeteryguide.com/gotw-sutton.html

http://articles.latimes.com/1999/mar/28/local/me-21844

http://www.tennisforum.com/showthread.php?t=123825

http://www.tennisforum.com/showthread.php?t=430341

http://www.tennisfame.com/hall-of-famers/may-sutton-bundy

 http://www.wimbledon.com/en_GB/scores/draws/archive/players/c6e623f7-9edf-4070-bc6f-9ed41d355a74/index.html

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=l91QAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SF8DAAAAIBAJ&dq=may%20sutton%20tennis&pg=7261%2C5660408

 

Photo credits:

http://www.cemeteryguide.com/gotw-sutton.html