Bessie Stringfield was born in Jamaica in 1911 and came to the US as a small child but was orphaned at the age of 5. She was raised by an Irish woman whose name Bessie was never allowed to divulge but whom, Bessie had said, “gave me whatever I wanted. When I was in high school I wanted a motorcycle. And even though good girls didn’t ride motorcycles, I got one.”
Bessie was 16 when she received her first of what would become 27 bikes, a 1928 Indian Scout. Although she had never ridden before, she took to it like a natural. By age 19, she was tossing pennies on a map and riding to wherever one landed. She covered the lower 48 states, doing stints as a trick rider in carnival stunt shows and hill climbing.
Because she was black, Bessie many times could not get a place to stay in those days of Jim Crow. She would seek out friends in local black communities to stay with or just sleep on her bike by filling stations, her jacket as her pillow, her feet resting on the rear fender.
Married six times (“if you kissed, you got married”), Bessie lost three babies during her first marriage and never had any more children. Her last name came from her third husband, who asked her to keep it, stating she had made the name famous.
During World War II, Bessie worked as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider for the Army, the only woman in her unit to do so and more than likely, the only black person as well. With a military crest on her front fender, Bessie carried documents between domestic bases. Her travels would bring her a great deal of racial prejudice, even being run off the road, causing her to spill her bike. She downplayed her courage in coping with such events, stating simply, “I had my ups and downs.”
In the 1950’s Bessie move to Miami, bought a house and became an LPN and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. Her motorcycle antics earned her the nicknames “Negro Motorcycle Queen” and later “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” Once, disguised as a man, Bessie won a flat track race but was denied the trophy when she removed her helmet. Many times, she performed stunt shows with her dogs. Bessie died in 1993.
In recognition of Bessie’s indomitable spirit, the AMA, in 2000, created the Bessie Stringfield Award. This award is given to “women who have been instrumental in showing other women they can be active participants in the world of motorcycling.” Two years later, she was inducted in the AMA’s Hall of Fame.
Next month: More women who made motorcycle history.
By Louise Reeves