Bessie Stringfield – A True Legend!

Bessie Stringfield

You had to be fearless, to serve your country as an Army motorcycle dispatch rider.  It took even more than bravery, to solo across the country on a motorcycle.  To really up the risk factor, do it as a black teen-aged female – in the 1930s, when racial prejudice was still the unofficial attitude of the nation!  Add up all that, and you’ve described Bessie Stringfield. “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami” was “BB” to her friends, and a barrier-buster to her gender and her generation.

She was 16, Jamaican-born and African-American, when she began riding her bike in the South — in 1927, when blacks didn’t travel on the roads alone, and “nice young women” didn’t ride cycles.  For her, it wasn’t about flouting societal conventions; Bessie just wanted to experience adventure, in a bigger world.

Bessie encountered the racial discrimination that was epidemic in 1927.  She told of being run off the road in the South, by a white man in a pickup truck. The first stirrings of the modern civil rights movement were four decades away; but she was following her inclinations and inspiration.  Bessie was orphaned and adopted at age five by an Irish woman in Boston, and her new mama gave her religion – and whatever she wanted.  Bessie explained, “When I was in high school I wanted a motorcycle. And even though good girls didn’t ride motorcycles, I got one.”

Her first bike was a 1928 Indian Scout, but she graduated to Harley’s and spent the 1930s and ‘40s riding them on eight solo tours across the face of America, on what she called her “penny tours.”  Her custom was to toss a penny onto a map of the U.S., and then ride to the place where the penny had landed.   She owned more than two dozen Harley-Davidsons over 60-plus years, claiming, “To me, a Harley is the only motorcycle ever made.”

Bessie was a solo rider, but maintained that she didn’t ride alone:  she said Jesus was watching over her as she traveled roads and regions where even men hesitated to ride, even in pairs.  The country wasn’t welcoming to blacks, let alone a black woman on a motorcycle.  The five-foot-three-inch adventurer stayed with Negro families when she could, and when no other options were available she slept on her bike.  She wasn’t looking to break barriers or make history, but she did:  she carried army documents between bases as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider during World War II — the only woman in her unit.

Bessie’s personal life was just as adventurous.  She settled in Miami after marrying and divorcing six times, and after losing three babies while married to her first husband.  She kept her third husband’s name, Stringfield, but never had any other children.  She performed with her dogs, founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, and became a licensed practical nurse.  The “Motorcycle Queen of Miami” eventually developed an enlarged heart, which limited her mobility.  When her doctor advised her to stop riding because of her condition, she told him “If I don’t ride, I won’t live long.” So she never did quit.

Stringfield died in 1993, at age 82. The American Motorcycle Association created the Bessie Stringfield Award in 2000, given to “women who have shown other women they can be active participants in the world of motorcycling.” In 2002, she was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. BB summed up her more than 60 years of motorcycling: “I was somethin’!  What I did was fun, and I loved it.”

Bessie is an inspiration to those who witnessed her life and for those of us who hear her story passed on.  She inspires because she lived her passion without hesitation.

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Posted on October 9, 2012, in Vintage Gallery and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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