Bessie Stringfield, born in 1911 or 1912, is usually known as the first Black woman to cross the United States solo on a motorcycle. She was also a civilian motorcycle courier for the United States Army during World War II.
Her story is unique not only because she was a woman whose passion was riding Harleys, but because of the acute forms of racism and sexism she faced as a result. She overcame, and, by the end of her life, she was colloquially known as the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami” — a striking designation for a woman who never sought a crown but simply loved the road. That love brought her many admirers, and since her death 30 years ago she has begun to receive more of the attention she is due. She has been the subject of a book, with another to come, and there have been motorcycle rides and a TV character in her honor.
There are few activities seen as riskier to the average American than riding a motorcycle, and that was especially true for her, riding in a time when the color of your skin could, in the wrong place and time, be a death sentence. But Stringfield lived as she pleased and with conviction.
This included her rendering of her own life, which has led to various legends, misconceptions, and flat-out fabrications.
According to some accounts, her birth name was Betsy Leonora Ellis, and she had become a character of her own making by the time she reached adulthood in the 1930s. She always maintained that she had been born in Jamaica to a native-born father and Dutch mother before allegedly being orphaned at 5 and raised by a white woman in Boston. The story was not implausible, as a growing number of Black immigrants began flowing into the United States after the turn of the 20th century. In reality, her birth parents were a Black couple living in North Carolina, though her specific racial ancestry remains ambiguous.
Ann Ferrar, a close friend of Stringfield’s who featured her in the 1996 book “Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road” and has a forthcoming biography of the biker, says that in private, Stringfield did not strictly maintain the idea of Caribbean origins. It’s unclear whether she wished to separate herself from the African American experience or to maintain privacy about her life as it really was.
One indisputable fact is Stringfield’s love for the road, which began when she was still young. She acquired the first of her more than two dozen motorcycles when she was 16, and within a few years was making long-distance trips throughout the United States.
Stringfield did not ride for sport or set out to break records with her journeys, which took her around the country eight times. Nor did she join a biker club, as the few women who dared to venture into such a quintessentially macho activity at the time were largely white, and at least some were racist. Stringfield, excluded from one such club, usually rode solo. In one sense, anyway. As Ferrar says: “She was not really alone because she believed The Man Upstairs was always with her.”
This, too, is connected to Stringfield’s peculiarity. Peculiar not in that she was a woman of faith — any Black American of her era could be expected to be — but that she sought out unusual paths even in her spiritual life. She was Catholic, a convert to the faith who surely faced ridicule for choosing such an uncommon path for an African American.
I, too, was born into a Black Baptist family but later converted to Catholicism — so I understand deeply what Stringfield was doing by choosing out of all Christian denominations the oldest but perhaps the one least associated with her own culture. She carried Rosary beads and statuettes of Jesus and Mary on her rides.
Those who know her story today tend to regard Stringfield as a Black activist out to make history, but it seems that the real Stringfield was most interested in being authentic to herself. She was reserved even in her barrier-breaking.
“Bessie wasn’t a marcher in the formal sense,” Ferrar says. “She didn’t go to rallies or hold placards. She felt she led by example.”
Kim Dawson, a co-producer of an upcoming documentary on Stringfield, adds: “I think she was very self-aware of the fact that she was the first to do a lot of things. But I would not say she was a spokesperson for anybody other than herself and her ability to do what she did.”
Her abilities would turn out to be good currency in some circles. When she moved to Florida in the 1950s, she had to convince white neighbors that she was worthy of her ride. She was called racial slurs by some and harassed by white police officers in Miami, whom she eventually won over with her demonstrable expertise. She worked as a cook, a housekeeper, and later as a nurse, but in her spare time, she ran the short-lived Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, gaining the moniker “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”
As part of her reign, if you will, Stringfield rode in the local Orange Blossom Parade, where she caught the attention of journalists and others who would become long-term admirers. She was later honored at the opening of the Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Ohio in 1990 — when she was 79 and riding less and less due to a heart condition.
Stringfield died three years later in Opa-locka, Fla., with no known kin and having requested that no services be held. Nevertheless, her funeral Mass was celebrated by Father John McLaughlin at St. Martha Catholic Church in Miami Shores.
Posthumously, Stringfield has received honors from various institutions, including being inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002 and the honor of our Internet age — going viral by means of a video short produced in 2017. In addition to the upcoming documentary film and Ferrar’s forthcoming book, “African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield, A Woman’s Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road,” A fictional version of Stringfield had a cameo on the HBO series “Lovecraft Country” in 2020.
The Bessie Stringfield All Female Ride ran from 2014 to 2021, gathering bikers from around the country to ride several notable routes. One year, the All Female Ride trekked to the Florida Keys, where Stringfield had been among the first to cross the Key West Bridge when it opened in 1982. In its final year, the ride ended in Miami Gardens near Stringfield’s former home.
Diane Fredel-Weis, a co-producer with Dawson on the upcoming Stringfield documentary, has traveled the country for three years conducting interviews with people who knew her. “The material that we’ve found from all the work done to really get to the truth and find the truth about Bessie is astonishing,” she says. “We’re speechless.”
For her part, Ferrar says, “People from all walks of life on six continents, female and male, schoolkids, and octogenarians, have written to tell me of their admiration for this daring and unusual woman. Bessie was an army of one.”
Nate Tinner-Williams, editor of Black Catholic Messenger, is a seminarian studying at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
This story was updated on April 11 to correct the title of Ferrar’s upcoming biography of Stringfield and to clarify the reference to “Lovecraft Country.”