African-American motorcycling pioneer Bessie Stringfield was a living legend. She rode solo across the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, and even visited Deep South where racial prejudices could threaten her life.
But Bessie put her goals before fear and stigmatization.
Half a century ago, the list of socially-approved roles for an American woman was fairly short with housework on top. One can say that Stringfield followed that expectations — she was married six times and worked as a nurse and a maid. But she never gave up on her non-prudish passion — driving through roads of USA on her bike.
Stringfield badly wanted a motorcycle in high school, and a neighbor who lived upstairs lent her one.
“My mama had a fit. Nice girls didn’t go around riding motorcycles in those days,” Stringfield told the Miami Herald. Bessie orphaned at five, and was adopted by a wealthy Irish woman from Boston who was very protective.
The girl had no idea how to drive a motorcycle, but she proved to have a natural talent. At the age of 16 Bessie got a 1928 Indian Scout from her mom whose worries were gone.
Two years later 19-years-old Bessie was already participating in the Wall of Death motorcycle attraction.
The Wall of Death was a wooden, bowl-shaped arena at carnivals where bikers performed deadly stunts. Bessie was one of those daredevils in the time she traveled across the country, and earned an unofficial title of “The Motorcycle Queen”.
But the roads of America at the time weren’t fit for a monarch. Bessie set to her journey well before many famous highways were paved. For instance, the American interstate highway system was not even proposed at the time.
Also, if something happened along the way with her machine, Stringfield had to be her own mechanic.
Bad roads and breakdowns were probably the least of Bessie’s problems. As she once stated, “the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motorcycle.” Stringfield was often denied to stay at motels, shops and even some gas stations. Bessie stayed with black families she met or simply slept on her bike in the weather.
She decided where to go next at a random, by flipping a coin onto a map of the USA. By 1940 she had become the first woman of color to ride a motorcycle in 48 lower states, and had also made trips to Brazil, Haiti and some parts of Europe.
Bessie started her journeys on Indian Scout but soon discovered she fancied Harley-Davidson’s bikes. In her lifetime, she owned 27 different models, one of which helped her to enroll in the Army during World War II. Stringfield completed difficult training maneuvers on her bike and proved she could serve as a civilian motorcycle courier.
Stringfield remembered how badly she wanted a bike in high school, and a neighbor who lived upstairs lent her one.
Her riding skills impressed not only military officers, but also the Florida police. Stringfield moved from Boston to Miami after her mom died. Bessie continued to ride her motorcycle, but faced discrimination from the local law enforcement.
A police officer denied her a driver license and said that a woman, especially a black woman, can not drive a motorcycle safely. Stringfield insisted that she could do it better than any man. The cop gave her ridiculously hard test with figure eights and other tricks – which weren’t a test for Bessie at all. She got her license and from that moment on did not have any troubles with the police.
By then, Bessie was publicly known as the “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami” and formed the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, which no longer exists.
Bessie stayed true to that lifestyle until she passed away in 1993 at the age of 82.
The woman drove her Harley through the streets of Miami nearly every day, despite her health condition called “enlarged heart”. According to a 1981 piece by Miami Herald, Bessie rode her motorcycle to a church when she was 70, shocking the community.
All that еpatage, however, was just a bonus in Stringfield’s legacy. She was the first to shatter one of the stereotypes about women and women of color in particular, encouraging them to live their lives the way they wanted and choose their own roads.
Featured Image: AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame