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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 bessiestringfield4.jpgemployer, left Jamaica for Boston. Shortly after arriving in America, Stringfield’s mom
died. 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
Queen 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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CLARENCE KING (1842 – 1901) White Geologist, Black Husband

In adventure, African-American women, American History, Civil War, Geology on June 17, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Clarence King

Clarence King’s ancestry went back to Alfred the Great, the Magna Carta, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  There was no doubt about King’s Anglo roots.  But people believe what they want to, and pale, blue-eyed King lived a double life as a white man and a black man, which spanned the breadth of New York society.

King’s mom was only 15 years old when she got married, and her 21 year old husband was already an established businessman.  King was born while his father was in China on business, and he was raised with the help of a colored nanny.  When King was only six his dad died in China.  The family also lost two baby girls leaving only mother and son.

A pattern of financial troubles and sickness that would follow King for the rest of his life started in 1856 in Canton, China when the family business was destroyed by mobs who hated foreign-owned businesses, and King’s mom was left almost destitute.  Three years later, 17-year-old King dropped out of high school before graduating, giving the vague reason as “illness.”  He moved to Brooklyn to work for a flour merchant.  He and his mother always remained close, but she remarried a widow and had a second family.

King might have been considered bi-polar.  He was prone to depression, a source of future illness, and yet very sociable.  His friends characterized him as smart, compassionate, well read, an excellent conversationalist and story teller, and a good writer.  Politically he was a staunch abolitionist.

THE CALL OF THE WILD             With the financial help of his step father, King went to Sheffield Scientific School which offered the best scientific training in the country.  He received a Bachelor’s degree in 1862.  After graduation, he and some buddies immediately set off for Lake Champlain to row from New York into Canada.  Not realizing that a draft had been instituted to fulfill the Union quota for soldiers, they were surprised to be stopped at the border as suspected draft dodgers.  They managed to convince the inspector that they were not avoiding the draft and finished their trip.  King was adamantly against slavery, but he was also a pacifist.  When the adventurers returned home, King headed to California to do some mountain climbing and feed his curiosity about geology, conveniently escaping his need to enroll in military service.

King, along with two friends, may have avoided the dangers of war, but he had some harrowing experiences that were equally as life threatening.  Near Fort Kearney, Nebraska King hired a guide to take him on a buffalo hunt.  After chasing a bull for almost two miles, King shot the animal, and it turned and charged King’s horse which fell on top of him.  A buffalo herd a mile and a half long rushed by him, parting just enough to avoid the horse which had King pinned to the ground, keeping him from being trampled.

King and his best friend James Gardiner found ways to earn just enough money to make their way to San Francisco, and King joined the California State Geological Survey as an unpaid assistant geologist.  King and the others on their expeditions worked in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and named Mount Tyndall, Mount Whitney, Mount Gardiner and Mount Clarence King after themselves.

NOT FOR LOVE OR MONEY             After a trip to Nicaragua in 1865, where King got malaria, he stayed at mom’s house to recover before going west again.  He returned to New York a year later when his stepfather died, leaving his mom with three children to raise, several servants to support and no money.  King borrowed money from Gardiner to help with the immediate needs.

In 1867, King was appointed U. S. Geologist-in-Charge of the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, and he successfully lobbied for federal funds to conduct his survey.  His salary was $250 a month, and he hired Gardiner as a member of his crew.  Despite the rugged environment, King preferred to dress the part of boss by wearing linen with silk stockings and low shoes.  During their first season, King and his team surveyed 12,000 square miles and collected over 3,000 specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils.

In Virginia City, Nevada, both King and Gardiner fell in love, and in April 1868 King announced his engagement to Ellen Dean, a teacher.  But in September when Gardiner married Josie Rogers, something was wrong, and King didn’t even show up to his best friend’s wedding.  A few months later when they all convened back in Washington D.C. King was acting despondent.  He wrote in a journal that loyalty to mother and God trumps passion.

After a third season surveying along the Fortieth Parallel, King earned his reputation as a captivating storyteller.  He had essays published in the Atlantic Monthly, and in 1872 he published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, tales of his adventure peppered with social commentary.  It was so popular that it went through nine printings in two years.

The book may have made King popular, but apparently it did not make him rich.  He needed money to help his family, so he testified as an expert witness for a California mining company for $5,000.  Then in late 1873, he ended up back in New York to set up the survey laboratory.  He was resigned to being city bound and would express his restless in a different way, the beginning of his double life.

AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY             By day King worked hard at the tasks at hand, but at night, either alone or with a friend, he went “slumming” around the neighborhoods of the poor and ethnically diverse.  He was not looking for sexual experiences or to gawk or assert his superiority.  King saw especially the African American neighborhoods as a frontier to explore, and in the cover of darkness he could experience cultures forbidden to him in his mainstream life.

King was recognized for his contributions in geology when the United States Senate confirmed his nomination as the first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in April 1879, a position he held for almost two years.  In 1881 King resigned in order to oversee several mining interests.  When most of them became losing propositions, he went to Europe to find investors.  He was nominally successful, but he did amass an impressive art collection which he either lent to friends or placed in storage in New York.

When he returned to New York in 1884, he rented rooms in various elegant residential hotels and belonged to several social clubs.  This arrangement allowed him the maximum freedom to come and go for long periods of time, often without telling his friends when he was leaving.  Although he had embedded himself in New York society, he was not at all attracted to the women of that class.  He preferred more “natural” women who were not obsessed with fashion, as he put it, with whom he could have a deeper conversation.  On one trip to California he had a relationship with a Native American named Luciana who came very close to his ideal.  Back in New York, King was haunted by her memory, and his friends gave up trying to find dates for him.

TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH             Sometime in late 1887, King met a woman named Ada Copeland, probably while he was slumming around New York at night.  There is no record of their meeting or courtship.  She was an African American who had migrated from Georgia to New York as a single woman and lived with a widowed aunt doing laundry in their home until she got a job as a nanny.  She was probably in her mid to late 20s when she met King, but she didn’t have a birth certificate to confirm her age.

The couple fell in love, but since interracial marriage was still illegal in most of the country, King introduced himself as James Todd, a Pullman car porter from Baltimore.  This was the only identity she ever knew.  King’s proficiency at storytelling served him well, and Copeland never doubted his veracity.  Despite his light complexion and eyes, by choosing that profession, it was assumed that he had black blood in him, and the presence of any amount of black blood, despite appearances, was enough to be considered Negro.

Ada Copeland became Mrs. James Todd in September 1888 in a small religious ceremony at Copeland’s aunt’s home.  Since they did not get a civil marriage license, they only had a common law marriage which had legal ramifications later in life.  There were only a few guests at the ceremony, and none of the groom’s family or friends attended or even knew about it.

Being married allowed Todd to move up in status and it allowed King to have a real home somewhere.  He set her up in an apartment in Brooklyn giving her an unusual amount of independence and privacy for a black woman.  But for King, supporting his mother’s household and a wife became very expensive, and the demands on his wallet were exacerbated when he and Todd had children.  There was a boy, Leroy, who was born only a year after they married and then died when he was about two.  By 1897 the family had grown to two girls and two more boys.  All of the children were called “colored” on their birth certificates.

Children made for a happy family, but it added to his burden of debt.  King borrowed money from John Hay, one of his dearest friends he met when he worked in Washington, D.C.  When they met, Hay was the assistant secretary of state, and then became President Lincoln’s private secretary.  King appealed to Hay for a loan, something he would do many times, and within the first year and a half of his marriage, King was $43,000 in debt.

FOR RICHER OR POORER, IN SICKNESS AND HEALTH             Both King’s private and professional lives were very full.  He received an honorary doctorate from Brown University, but he was unable to attend the ceremony because he was in Europe dealing with mining projects.  He had perfect alibis for whenever he wasn’t around.  His wife believed he was traveling across the country on a train working as a porter.  While he was gone, he wrote passionate love letters to her, and there were joyful reunions upon his return.  His friends and business colleagues thought he was with his mother or had disappeared for a while because of his depression.  When he did visit his mother, he kept the truth about his indebtedness from her.  When he confided his fears and feelings about life to his friends, particularly Hay, he talked about everything except his family.  He kept that a well guarded secret.

King’s financial situation continued to worsen.  In 1886 he had organized the national Bank of El Paso and, as the main stockholder, he appointed a friend as the bank president.  In 1893, the friend’s bad management caused the bank to fail, and King lost everything.  The burden of living a double life and increased debt started taking its toll.  That fall, a disheveled, bearded King was arrested at the Central Park zoo for disorderly conduct.  He had gone into a wild rage, but he was released on bail posted by a former classmate who worked at the facility.  King was then examined by two doctors who diagnosed him as exhibiting acute symptoms resulting from a non-specific mental disturbance.  The doctors and three friends sought help in dealing with King, and a judge committed him to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane.  The cost of his treatment was paid for by two friends who visited him almost every day.

In January 1894, after two months in Bloomingdale, King was declared “recovered” from “Acute Melancholia.”  He had had no contact with his wife while he was institutionalized, and then almost immediately left for a business trip to the Caribbean.  He didn’t arrive back in New York until May before heading out to California again.  To help alleviate some of his financial burden, King started selling off some of f his art collection.

Life for the “Todd” family got easier while it got worse for King.  Todd spent the money she received on the family, moving up the ladder into more middle class neighborhoods and adding a nanny, music teacher, cook, maid and laundress to the payroll.  King had a mild heart attack in 1897 while in Colorado.  Perhaps he suspected that something would happen because in his correspondence to his wife he admonished her to keep their relationship a secret and to burn his letters.

King went to Arizona next where he contracted whooping cough, and the doctor found a spot of tuberculosis on his lung.  He kept traveling, exacerbating the condition, and when he went back to New York to visit his family and his mother, there was a feeling that it might be the last visit.  King told Todd to move the family to Toronto and to buy a house with the money he had gotten from friends, which she did.

Again King went to Arizona for the climate.  He had another heart attack and ventured to Pasadena, California to find a doctor who could help him.  He had lost 40 pounds and was plagued by headaches caused by fever.  Hay continued to send money to support his friend.  King, sensing the beginning of the end, started to evaluate his life, wondering why someone as intelligent as himself was such a financial failure, a question his friends had been asking themselves for a long time.

TIL DEATH DO US PART             King went once more to Arizona in a desperate attempt to recover.  He admittedly knew that was impossible, so he finally unburdened himself and wrote a letter to Todd revealing his true identity and the deception he had kept from her for 13 years.  He suggested she write his real name in her Bible in case she forgot it.

On December 23, 1901, Todd celebrated her 41st birthday in Toronto.  On December 24, King died in Arizona, one month before his 60th birthday.  He had told his wife that he had provided for the family after his death, but the only will he had was written before he got married, making his mother the beneficiary.  Because King and Todd only had a common law marriage, she was not entitled to anything.

For all of King’s accomplishments and failures, his life choices were a living illustration of what he believed: “People are looked at in only two ways, with the brain and with the heart.  If you take the former method you initially classify and judge people by their differences with other people usually yourself.  If you see them with the heart you have your conceptions on the similarities between them and some other people usually yourself.”1

QUESTION:  What do you believe in so strongly that you would have it influence your life choices?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

1Sandweiss, p. 173.

Sources:

Sandweiss, Martha A., Passing Strange, A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.

http://books.nap.edu/html/biomems/cking06.pdf

http://www.summitpost.org/mount-clarence-king/150502  (A description of Mount Clarence King)

MADAME C.J. WALKER (1867-1919) First Self-Made American Woman Millionaire

In African-American women, American History, Biography, Entrepreneurs, Feminists, Guiness Book of Records, Hair, History, Millionaires, People, Uncategorized, women on March 22, 2010 at 8:12 PM

Madame C .J. Walker

Madame C. J. Walker turned a bad hair day into a fortune and a Guinness World Record.  She followed her dream, literally, turning her life into a true “rags to riches” story. 

Sarah Breedlove was the fifth of six children born to former slaves in Louisiana. Both of her parents died when she was seven years old, but being an orphan wasn’t a life sentence to poverty.   She moved in with her older sister and brother-in-law and survived by working in the cotton fields of Louisiana and Mississippi.  This turned out to be a bad situation, so at age 14 she married Moses McWilliams to escape her brother-in-law’s abuse.  

Four years after her marriage, Breedlove had a baby girl.  Two years later her husband died and she was again forced to find her own way.  She moved to St. Louis where her four brothers had become successful barbers.  She earned $1.50 a day working as a washer woman and eventually saved enough money to send her daughter to school.  

Breedlove’s own education was spotty.  When she reached school age, there were no funds allocated by the white legislators in Louisiana to educate black children.  Then she was pressed into working full time to contribute to the household of her sister and brother-in-law.  In St. Louis, she managed to improve her reading and writing with the help of the women at the St. Paul AME church.  These women also became her social network and eventually an inspiration for growing her business. 

Loss and abandonment followed Breedlove to St. Louis.  All her brothers died and she married and divorced John Davis.  In addition, an ailment that caused her to lose almost all her hair plagued her. She desperately tried various homemade remedies and store bought products.  One potion she used was created by Anne Malone, and in 1905 Breedlove moved to Denver as a sales rep for Malone.  

Life took a turn for the better in Denver.  Not one to depend on another, Breedlove wanted to develop her own hair products.  The formula for a solution to her problem was revealed to her in a dream.  “…One night I had a dream…a black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up in my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind to begin to sell it.”1 She worked with a pharmacist to develop her own line that rivaled Malone’s. 

Her love life was looking up, too.  She married newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker.  Breedlove changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker, and it proved to have the sophisticated sound that instilled confidence in shoppers.  Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower scalp conditioner was her ticket to success. As for her marriage, unfortunately the third time was not a charm, and they divorced after six years.  

Madam Walker remembered the relationships she developed with the women at the church in St. Louis.  She saw a large potential market in such fellowships and gave product demonstrations at churches and lodges. She also implemented a door to door, grass roots selling strategy that led to hiring individual sales agents. Walker acknowledged that her level of education was insufficient to run a profitable business, so she hired a former teacher to tutor her privately.  

The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was founded with five original products.  Expansion was inevitable, and for a year and a half she moved to Pittsburgh and opened the Lelia College of Beauty Culture, named after her daughter.  In 1910 Walker moved her entire operation to Indianapolis where she built a factory, training school, and hair and nail salon.  

Walker’s success was three-fold.  First, she accrued an enormous personal wealth.  Second, she provided economic opportunity for black women which gave them an alternative to domestic labor. Her sales agents could potentially earn between $5 and $15 dollars a day when unskilled white laborers were only earning about $11 a week.2 The sales force was organized into local and state clubs with opportunities for management on every level, a model that is used in many companies today.  In 1917 the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America was big enough to hold a convention in Philadelphia.  

Third, Walker believed that with wealth comes responsibility, and she became a role model for using her riches to support political and philanthropic causes.  She gave generously to African-American organizations and instilled this virtue in her sales force.  At the 1917 convention, Walker gave out awards to her agents not just for their business achievements but also for their political activism.  

The headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company remained in Indianapolis, but in 1916 Walker and her daughter moved to Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and Walker supervised the business from there.  Their new home was a 30-room mansion designed for them by black architect Vertner Tandy, and Walker spared no expense on the furnishings.  The estate was named Villa Lewaro after the first two letters of her daughter’s name: Lelia Walker Robinson, and is in the National Register of Historical Places. 

During the last year of Walker’s life, total sales of her company exceeded $500,000 and she had trained some 40,000 sales agents serving customers the U.S., Central America and the Caribbean.3 Her legacy includes The Guinness Book record as the first self-made American woman millionaire, and in 1998 the U.S. Postal Service put her image on a stamp. 

QUESTION:  What would you do if someone gave you one million dollars today? 

                                 © 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved 

Sources: 

1http://www.brilliantdreams.com/product/famous-dreams.htm 

2Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Madam’s Crusade”, Time magazine, December 7, 1998, Canadian edition. 

3http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5662.html 

http://madamcjwalker.com/bio_madam_cj_walker.aspx 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madam_C._J._Walker 

http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5662.html 

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/walker_hi.html 

http://www.brilliantdreams.com/product/famous-dreams.htm 

http://www.irvingtonhistoricalsociety.org/nrhp/nrhp04.html