African American Queen of the Road
Bessie Stringfield: The First Stories of an Untold Life (Part 1)
By Ann Ferrar
The original stories of Bessie Stringfield, African American motorcycling pioneer, were written in the 1990s by Ann Ferrar, a journalist, former biker and protege of Bessie. The author's narratives shed light on Stringfield's hidden life, talents and achievements in America's pre-Civil Rights era. They sparked global fascination with Bessie. In PART 1, Ferrar takes a retrospective look at her stories and previews her upcoming book, the definitive biography "African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield, A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road."
© Copyright 1990-2020, Ann Ferrar. Ann Ferrar reserves all rights to this content and her earlier stories of Bessie Stringfield, upon which this content is based. Strictly prohibited are adaptations and other derivative projects in any media. Full copyright notice with Library of Congress Registration Numbers are posted in link on menu bar. Please respect the author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield by adhering to copyright law.
The authentic stories of Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) were borne of Ann Ferrar's exclusive audio recordings of Bessie, taped by the author prior to her 1996 book "Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road." These are the only recordings of the late Bessie Stringfield in existence.
In her original narratives, Ferrar described how Bessie Stringfield broke through racial and gender barriers on her motorcycles in the pre-Civil Rights era. Stringfield's riding career spanned six decades and included a stint as a civilian motorcycle courier during World War II. Bessie rode around the USA eight times despite the risks posed by segregation.
Bessie's courage was multi-layered. "She showed as much bravery in keeping her faith, capacity to love, and ability to bond with unlikely whites even when faced with bigotry," says Ferrar, adding, "her humanity, as much as her biker talent, is what made Bessie Stringfield special. Her life was not defined by struggle, but rather, how she reacted to each situation." Yet Bessie had been overlooked and was undiscovered by historians. Her story was in danger of being lost upon her passing.
Inwardly, Bessie Stringfield was as secretive as she was outwardly daring. Only in her twilight years, after settling in Miami, Florida did Stringfield reflect back on her life with Ann Ferrar. Here, read the backstory of the legacy pact between the two women that led to the author's story "Bessie Stringfield: The Color Blue." First written as Bessie's eulogy, then published in "Hear Me Roar" and later at the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame, this piece and others by Ferrar have inspired a new generation that recognizes Stringfield's bravery.
Ferrar's narratives are the only original, authentic, primary-sourced stories on the life of Bessie Stringfield. The contents of the author's private tapes are woven into these narratives, which bear the author’s creative stamp and expression of thought on the life, achievements and talents of Bessie Stringfield.
The upcoming "African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road" is Ferrar's definitive biography of Bessie. This book includes the as-yet untold parts of Stringfield's life known only to Bessie and Ann. Also upcoming is the 25th Anniversary Global Edition of "Hear Me Roar." Release dates for both books are TBA.
Bessie Stringfield Surmounts Challenges of Race and Gender
My Original Stories on the Hidden Life of an American Road Queen
By Ann Ferrar
I met and befriended Bessie Stringfield in 1990, three years before the end of her long life. At age 79, Bessie was thin as a wisp and tiny at less than five feet. She was barely recognizable from the young, robust black woman biker she had been in her prime. Yet there was something about Bessie that drew me to her and made me look past the frailty of her advanced age. In my eyes, she had an unusual aura. I saw that beneath her age and fragility, her spirit and strength still resided in the present moment.
Bessie Stringfield was born into a modest home in the southeastern region of America in 1911. I was 35 when we met and still a novice biker in my native New York City back then. I hung on her every word while Bessie told me how she rode her Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles across the United States eight times, alone except for her deity and constant companion, Jesus, whom she called the Man Upstairs. Even with divine providence, I was amazed that Bessie had made these solo road trips in the early- and mid-20th century, before Civil Rights had taken hold as a mass movement, and when both racism and gender vulnerability were threats to her safety. I felt the diminutive Bessie had grace and a certain gravitas. Right away I knew that I would record and write her brave yet hidden life. So, with Bessie's blessing, encouragement and permission, that's exactly what I did.
Bessie Stringfield was under the radar, an obscure figure, unknown to the larger public and overlooked even by black and women's historians. But she was not unknown to me. I was a witness. I recorded Bessie on audio tape and shed light on her achievements and character in my prose. Bessie did not live to see herself in any of my stories. The first one I wrote was her eulogy when she passed away in 1993.
In my narrative stories of Bessie Stringfield, I described how over 60 years, Bessie racked up about a million miles on the 27 Harleys and one Indian Scout motorcycle that she owned in her lifetime. I described Bessie's favorite mode of travel, known as gypsy touring. In the 1930s and beyond, she planned her routes—NOT!—by tossing a penny over a map and riding to wherever it landed. Suffice it to say that gypsy touring was not the safest mode of travel for African Americans back then, given that the nation was marred with signs such as "no coloreds allowed" and worse. Yet I could tell that Bessie would not be stopped. Nor would she let herself be defined by the bad behavior of others. I thought, What a woman. What a human. What an inspiration.
Given everything that Bessie Stringfield had lived through, and almost as if her sheer nerve wasn't enough, I pointed out to readers in my stories that she made the bulk of her long-distance road trips well before the age of interstate highways, and when her Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, primitive by today's standards, often had mechanical problems. Somehow she persevered astride those bikes on many an unpaved, rutted road.
From the get-go, in my stories of Bessie Stringfield dating back to the early 1990s, I wrote of how she navigated her way around restrictions on race despite segregation, and of how she rejected conventions of gender and even familial ties. Bessie turned her back on disapproving relatives who scolded her for such "unladylike" behavior. Dismissing their dictate that "nice girls didn't go around riding motorcycles," Bessie left while still a teenager and never saw them again. Instead, she chose a path that was unusual for any woman, and unprecedented for an African American woman. That is how I wrote and presented the hidden life of Bessie Stringfield to the world in my narratives. My prose works are the only primary-sourced stories of Bessie Stringfield that exist anywhere. Primary-sourced means they were passed directly from Bessie to me.
In a recorded conversation between Bessie and me in February 1991—two years before her death—Bessie recalled the tomboy stubbornness of her youth. "I wanted a motorcycle and I got it!" she insisted to me, as if I were one of her Baptist aunts and their argument were only yesterday. She then conceded she had no idea how to ride her first machine, a 1928 Indian Scout.
"Who taught you to ride it?" I asked her.
Bessie replied with conviction: "I wrote letters to the Man Upstairs. 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!" Aunt Bessie appeared to have been a natural talent on the Indian Scout and I never doubted it, given all of her subsequent achievements on two wheels.
Today, I look back on my favorite, best-known stories of Bessie Stringfield. Some of you may have rediscovered them in various places, including inside the first edition of my book Hear Me Roar, which has become a cult classic since its release a quarter-century ago. Or you may have seen my other stories about Bessie Stringfield on the web, at the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame, or in biker magazines through the years. Perhaps you've seen more of my stories on earlier versions of this site.
Here, I talk about what Bessie means to me as a role model in life and on the road. Bessie took me under her wing as a motorcycling protege with advice and encouragement borne of her solo travels. She was the elder woman who became like my surrogate Aunt in matters of womanhood. She listened without judgment and gave me feedback on matters that were not within the grasp or experience of my mother and conservative aunts. They were daughters of Italian immigrants who were as equally shocked by my riding a motorcycle as were Bessie's Baptist aunts half-a-century earlier.
Continuing my narrative here, I explore what Bessie Stringfield means to a new generation of female bikers that is inspired by her courage against daunting odds. And in describing the genuine origin of my primary-sourced stories of Bessie Stringfield, I share some of the nuts and bolts of how I wrote them. I began with Bessie's eulogy, first published in 1993 with my copyright in an international biker magazine. I expanded on the eulogy in my subsequent copyrighted stories until ultimately, they landed at the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame and its museum website. There, millions of people around the world learned of Bessie Stringfield, an amazing hidden figure, for the first time.
With my personal knowledge of the woman, I knew that Bessie Stringfield's understated bravery and the significance of her achievements could not be conveyed in a meaningful way without exploring how race, gender, faith and social circumstance affected her life. So, to craft my stories, I drew upon: the dialogue of our exclusive recorded interviews; our many other anecdotal conversations; the notes I wrote in my journals during our friendship; and interviews with Bessie's closest African American and other contemporaries, all of whom were so generous and supportive of my mission to write the book of Bessie's life.
Along with my additional findings from further research into hidden corners of Bessie's life, I gathered a solid base of exclusive material. Building on this foundation, I interpreted her life with my first-hand perspectives and created story-lines of her life in my short-form published stories. I am expanding on all these elements in my upcoming book, the definitive long-form biography African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road. The book includes never-before-published material on Bessie's private life that I have not released anywhere.
In my narratives, I wrote of how Bessie Stringfield dodged the hard-balls that rednecks and even the Klan itself had flung at her along the way. Yet in an era so full of threats and great challenges to people of color, inwardly I wondered if Bessie was so full of wanderlust that she had given way to reckless abandon. But I simply asked, "What if the penny landed someplace where you knew it might be, or would be, Klan country? Did you do another toss?"
"Nope," Bessie replied on my tape. "A penny makes a wide circle on a map. I could ride anywhere I wanted inside the circle or around the edges if I had to." But then she added, "Nobody killed me, thank God."
This is an excellent spot for me to clarify an important theme in my writings about Bessie Stringfield—why I included the word race in the subtitle of the forthcoming book and what it means for me to explore how race influenced Bessie's life, among other vital factors. I want all my readers to know that it is not my view of race as a white woman who was still in the cradle when Rosa Parks sat down on that bus. Rather, it's Bessie's experiences of race as she described them to me and as they informed my perspectives of the woman and what she had lived through. It's what Bessie and her closest peers, including African American elders and others with whom I spent time, taught me. It was eye-opening and even humbling at times.
Here, I'll quote Ms. Austin Channing Brown, author of the book I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Her first chapter begins with a frank, albeit blanket, observation: "White people can be exhausting." In my role as the author-originator of the Bessie Stringfield story, and as Bessie's messenger, if you will, I pledge not to tire anybody out:)
As people have gotten word of the biography, it has been gratifying to hear from some prominent African American women bikers and opinion-leaders, who have written to let me know they appreciate my mission in writing the book of Bessie Stringfield's life. They say they feel an emotional connection to her. They view Bessie as a role model of cultural pride and have explained to me why they are proud of her for being unapologetically black. They tell me that even they cannot imagine how hard it must have been for Bessie to ride in the oppressive days of Jim Crow segregation.
By her example, Bessie Stringfield has inspired these 21st century women to carry the torch of her legacy among their generation on two wheels. In greater numbers than ever before, black women are taking their own long-distance road trips today, even holding large group events coordinated by committees. There are groups of female bikers—calling themselves wind sisters—who celebrate Bessie Stringfield and the sisterhood of riders, which has grown more broadly in recent years to include women of all races. Speaking of Bessie, on social media one group declares, "We stand on her shoulders."
"For me, meeting Bessie Stringfield
was like a jolt of electricity, as when you
touch something dormant that you didn't
realize was statically charged."
The more I listened to Bessie's experiences and as I grew to know my surrogate Aunt, I felt she deserved a more regal nickname, even if just between us two. To me, she was the American Road Queen. Then into my head popped the title of a favorite classic film, The African Queen, a saga of grit and triumph over impossible odds. That was it! Though Bessie was of mixed heritage, I dubbed her the African American Queen of the Road. One day, when I trotted that out in conversation, Bessie cackled with glee and bemusement.
Characteristically, she said, "If you say I am a queen in your mind, I won't take away how you feel. But if I am any kind of queen, it is because Jesus put me there. He is the King. His mother Mary is The Queen. I know those Dominican nuns in Brooklyn taught you that." I had gone to Catholic school and since Bessie had converted to Catholicism, the faith came up a lot.
In my stories, I wrote that Bessie was an unusual woman of color who had chosen a path especially challenging for all women in her era. She broke with female tradition and also managed to choose a free-spirited life path that was not even feasible for most women back then. I wrote of how there was no movement of women for whom Bessie could tear down the floodgates. Large groups of women did not rally behind Bessie Stringfield on motorcycles. Most females were not positioned in society to let loose, hop onto motorcycles and ride away from maternal duties and/or "women's work."
It did not escape me, however, that Bessie slid seamlessly back into traditional "feminine" roles when the need arose. Bessie could be the maid, cook, practical nurse and even a nanny to white children at times, but with a twist. I described how Bessie showed up for work on her Harley. Further in my view, the fact that Bessie held jobs as a domestic made her behavior in the flip side of her life all the more risky and daring. I can tell you that Bessie Stringfield was a solo act of contradictions: She became a Roman Catholic but married and divorced six times, against the strict rules of the Church.
"If you kissed, you got married," Bessie told me by way of explanation.
With good nature I bantered, "Yes, but what about all the divorces? Who are you, Miss Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor?"
"If I had a big diamond, I could be," she quipped. "But I don't need any diamonds. All I need is the Man Upstairs." It was true. Jesus was the only man to whom she ever made a lifelong commitment.
In my narratives, I wrote of how Bessie, with her can-do attitude, did hill-climbing and stopped at the odd carnival here and there, where she did trick or "fancy" riding moves. In my very first narrative story—the 1993 eulogy—I described how Bessie used her instinctive talent to ride the Indian Scout around the walls of a vintage motordrome, which is a huge barrel constructed of wood. The eulogy was published as a feature article called "Bessie Stringfield: A Tribute to a Life-Long Harley Girl" in American Iron, an international magazine for devotees of American-made motorcycles. I expanded on that eulogy to write a narrative for my 1996 debut book, Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road. I named the story "Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue," for her favorite color.
Later, as noted earlier, my story of Bessie continued its journey, landing at the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame museum when Bessie was inducted posthumously in 2002. With my perspectives expressed therein, the narrative had helped Bessie become inducted by informing the Hall of Fame board and its biker community of Bessie's achievements and courage. The story was recited by the emcee at her induction ceremony. But if you missed the first, longer version of the article on the Hall of Fame museum website, you're out of luck now. I had to abridge it because it grew too popular, ironically enough. Too many people lifted it verbatim without my byline, while others have used large chunks of it without reference to the author.
These vagaries of the web are why many users of the internet and social media today may not realize that my early narratives about Bessie Stringfield sparked the global fascination and admiration for her that extends into the 21st century. As noted earlier, I was a witness. I am the bonafide author-originator of the Bessie Stringfield story and have been its quiet steward for 30 years. The authentic, primary-sourced material that I gathered directly from Bessie and her closest peers resides in my personal audio tapes of Bessie and in my many other transcripts and files. My tapes and transcripts containing Bessie's quotes and anecdotes are copyright-registered in the Library of Congress but they are not available for use by other parties.
My stories of Bessie Stringfield were born of the human connection between her and me, and they predate all the imitative, reductive secondary pieces that pop up in search engines and web encyclopedias today. There are no cyber-substitutes for the real thing. That is because the most vital and prescient thing I did was to record Bessie on audio tape while there was still time. Bessie was in declining health and knew this was her chance to pass on her legacy. So, she sat down for me and reflected on her entire life, which she had never done before—not even for her husbands. With my affection for, and my loyalty to, Aunt Bessie, my stewardship of her story comes with certain responsibilities. Because of Bessie's tendency to be secretive, parts of her early life seem puzzling today. I'll talk about that later in Part 3.
Like Bessie in her day, I too have flown mostly under the radar. But then this website went up a couple of years ago, and recently I was asked to step in as editor of the Bessie Stringfield fan page on Facebook. So, by now I have heard from readers from New York to New Zealand, ranging from schoolchildren of generation Z to African American seniors who remember their own lives in the decades of segregation, who have graciously shared their memories with me. Many people who have contacted me have never been on a motorcycle. For me, it is wonderful to see that Bessie Stringfield's legacy is thriving and it far transcends motorcycling.
Next, in Parts 2 and 3, I continue looking back on more of my original stories of Bessie Stringfield. I wrote of how Bessie, as a civilian, worked for the U.S. Army as a courier during World War II, and how after the war in Miami she became, quite literally, the leader of the pack. I discuss the two different Americas that each of us experienced in our respective travels.