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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 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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