My African American
Queen of the Road

The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me

A Memoir of Race, Friendship,
Resilience and the Road

© By Ann Ferrar

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All content (text and photos) on this website Copyright © 1990 - 2018, Ann Ferrar. As Bessie Stringfield's authorized biographer and recordist, Ann Ferrar is the author-originator, primary source and sole rights-holder of this material, its previous variations, and the oral history of Bessie Stringfield as told by Ms. Stringfield to Ms. Ferrar and as recorded by the author. Library of Congress Registration Numbers TX0004341049; TX8473178; and 1-635-1434791. The author reserves all rights to her works and properties. This website provides a glimpse into the only authorized book - biography of Miami's black motorcycle queen Bessie Stringfield, who defied racial & gender barriers on her Harleys in the pre-Civil Rights era. This content is based on the author's collected writings, including: her upcoming book My African American Queen of the Road, The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me (pub date TBA) and her story "Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue" from her book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (NY: Crown, 1996). The author's excerpts from "Hear Me Roar/Color Blue" were published and read globally on the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum website, on AnnFerrar.com and in periodicals (1993-present). The author's print books, articles, web biographies and oral readings on Ms. Stringfield are the author's intellectual property and are not in the public domain. Thus, Ann Ferrar’s stories, story elements and storylines, ideas, perspectives, conclusions and other essential content (read here and elsewhere) must not be pirated, imitated, adapted to other media, duplicated, scanned, stored, or otherwise plagiarized in any media by other parties. Thank you for respecting the rights of the author-originator and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield.

Writing Bessie's Truth:
Behind the Authorized Biography of a Daring Motorcycle Queen

Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) was an extraordinary woman of color and a motorcycling pioneer who rose above racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era. She was also my mentor and friend. Bessie toured the USA eight times on her vintage Harleys and was a World War II courier. With courage and faith, she rode alone on primitive roads despite the risks to lone female travelers and the dangers to African Americans in the era of segregation.

A photo in Bessie Stringfield's biography book
Bessie Stringfield and Ann Ferrar on the day they first met, August 1990. With Bessie’s blessing, thus began Ann’s journey to preserve the elder’s legacy exclusively on tape and in Ann’s original writings.

In response to readers of my earlier stories about Bessie and her many global fans on social media, I’ve created this website. Here, I tell the backstory of how I met this amazing woman, became her biographer in fulfillment of a promise, and how, as a result of our pairing, Bessie grew from a local Miami figure to a posthumous global legend. And on the pages of this website, I will also give glimpses into what is, in fact, the only authorized biography of Bessie B. Stringfield, the daring motorcycle queen who rode her Harleys on the backroads of America before the interstates were built. I call the new book My African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road (publication date to be announced).

In the 1950s and ’60s, Bessie had two "royal" monikers among locals around her home base of Miami, Florida. Depending on who was talking, she was the Negro Motorcycle Queen and later the Motorcycle Queen of Miami. Today, Bessie Stringfield has risen in stature to be widely regarded as a culturally significant figure—an iconto a new generation of fans who are inspired by her bravery against the odds. When Bessie and I got together late in her life, we could not have known that someday, there would be a “viral” video on a hot venue called Facebook, plus huge women’s motorcycle rides and achievement awards that honor her name and legacy. Educators and children’s storybook illustrators have even begun to introduce her to children. Yet the real, flesh-and-blood Bessie Stringfield, the enigmatic woman whom I knew, died before most millennials were even born. And so, the real Bessie remains alluringly unknown to her fans of today. But she is not unknown to me.

That's because with Bessie’s blessing and encouragement, I recorded her oral history on a series of exclusive audio tapes during the last three years of her life, becoming the only author—the only person—to record the voice and the stories of Bessie Stringfield as told by the woman herself. Bessie gave me the gift of her life story and asked me to keep it alive in my writings. It has been my privilege to keep that promise as a labor of love through the years. So, let me introduce myself: I am the storyteller, the messenger at Bessie’s request with a creative voice all my own. To me, Bessie has been a role model and an inspiration, as well as my muse.

Bessie and I first met in the summer of 1990 when she was 79, three years before her death. She was two generations older than me, an age difference of 44 years, filled with life experiences as different from mine as night and day. Bessie had been riding Harleys for more than 60 years and had logged at least a million miles in all kinds of conditions. Some circumstances she found herself in were treacherous because of the roads; others were treacherous because of harsh racial prejudice in the mid-20th century South. I was a novice rider back then. The setting for our first encounter could not have been more apropos. It was a small, niche motorcycle heritage museum in a Midwestern town. In a modest exhibit on female bikers, a hand-drawn portrait of Bessie was part of the display. I was there doing research for Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (NY: Crown, 1996, 1st ed.). That was my debut book in which I would introduce Bessie to a global audience with my original story “Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue.” Bessie didn’t live to see herself in Hear Me Roar. When she died in 1993, I wrote my friend’s eulogy, Bessie Stringfield: A Tribute to a Life-Long Harley Girl. This story was published in American Iron magazine, introducing Bessie to fellow Harley devotees across the nation and abroad. Later, excerpts from my stories were variously posted on the website of the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum. My original, primary-sourced stories have been read and referenced by millions for the past 17 years. As word of Bessie’s achievements spread exponentially around cyberspace, her legacy and legend took root in a new generation. I knew I’d fulfilled my promise to a great and singular woman.

Now, however, there is more for me to do. Readers who remember me as the author-originator of these stories, and new fans who have seen the viral video, provide a steady stream of emails to my inbox. They ask, Please write more; just who was Bessie Stringfield, the woman, the person? In response to such questions, Bessie is the heroine of my new upcoming book My African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me. The spirited viral video, posted on Facebook by Timeline Media in December 2016, shows only her youthful, rebellious sass in two-and-a-half minutes. But the untold, mature Bessie Stringfield whom I knew was a multi-dimensional woman who cannot be captured in sound bites or frozen in captions. The rebel icon was not free of regrets, nor of secrets and painful memories that she tried to push away. She asked me not to write about those until well after her passing.

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Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.

Now, however, there is more for me to do. Readers who remember me as the author-originator of these stories, and new fans who have seen the viral video, provide a steady stream of emails to my inbox. They ask, Please write more; just who was Bessie Stringfield, the woman, the person? In response to such questions, Bessie is the heroine of my new upcoming book My African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me. The spirited viral video, posted on Facebook by Timeline Media in December 2016, shows only her youthful, rebellious sass in two-and-a-half minutes. But the untold, mature Bessie Stringfield whom I knew was a multi-dimensional woman who cannot be captured in sound bites or frozen in captions. The rebel icon was not free of regrets, nor of secrets and painful memories that she tried to push away. She asked me not to write about those until well after her passing.

As I grew to know Bessie on a personal level, I was in awe of her nerve and resourcefulness. She took control of the handlebars as a long-distance motorcycle rider in an era when it was rare for any woman, and unprecedented for a woman of color. With her wanderlust, Bessie had strayed far from her station, taking risks in defiance of worried and disapproving relatives in the South, where she was from. Bessie skirted limits placed on race and gender to lead an unconventional life, but I found it almost equally impressive that she slid seamlessly back into traditional roles in order to get by. On that first day when we met at the museum in 1990, we began exchanging stories almost immediately as we stood in front of the hand-drawn mural of Bessie in her youth. I had arrived by motorcycle with a club called Women in the Wind. I wore goggles pulled up over my head—much like the museum portrait of the younger Bessie.

During our chat, she said, “The way you look, you remind me of me back then.”

I replied, “I have hardly begun my road trips. Even if I lived ten lifetimes and rode two million miles, I wouldn’t be worthy to stand in your shadow.”

“Oh, you’ll do all right,” she grinned, yet peered up at me closely. “I can tell you will be happy on the road. It was hard for me sometimes but I was always very happy on two wheels. The Man Upstairs was always with me.”

Quickly I gleaned that the unsung, elderly woman who stood with me had risen above obstacles that would have crushed a weaker person. I knew that, long before the women’s movement and even before the Civil Rights movement, Bessie had already achieved a lot in a nation where suppression of both women and blacks was the cultural “norm.” I knew right away there was nothing “normal” about Bessie Stringfield. I realized I’d met the real-life heroine and role model who had been missing from my own life. The brief identifying paragraph on the display wall could never convey Bessie’s greatness nor reach a wide audience. I knew I had to write about this woman in detail and bring her out into the open. With my first book Hear Me Roar in the works for Crown Publishing in New York, Bessie became my protagonist of the eponymous story Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue. I never expected to write my friend’s eulogy first. When she died in 1993, she was the heroine of Bessie Stringfield: A Tribute to a Life-Long Harley Girl. So, she would never get to read the way I honored her with my writings as I’d promised to do.

In the three years that I had her, as our friendship grew deeper, we talked about how we were each in our prime during our adventurous respective road trips. But our journeys and defiance of convention were half-a-century apart and we were each viewed and treated differently by society because of our skin colors. That is why race is one of the threads in the story of Bessie Stringfield and me. How could it not be? Our story cannot be conveyed in a meaningful way without it. My new book explores the experiences of two different women who bonded and dug in our heels against the pull of our families' ethnic and social traditions. Bessie's heritage was mixed and took hold in the Southern USA, with strong influences of Black Baptist in humble beginnings in the Jim Crow era. She later became a Roman Catholic. My ancestral roots were in Southern Italy and equally humble. I am the granddaughter of Ellis Island immigrants, born into Catholicism in a post-World War II, working class Italian American family in Brooklyn, New York. What two women could be more ostensibly mismatched? We connected initially because of our mutual love of motorcycles and, perhaps in part, we were mutually exotic to each other.

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We took to the open road in two different periods of time. Yet for each of us, our motorcycles were a timeless expression of freedom and exhilaration. They were also an exercise in daring, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Choosing a motorcycle to feel alive and to seek adventure comes with placing oneself in a vulnerable spot, especially for women riding alone. But if I was at risk for bodily injury or death, or harm at the hands of other people, the risks to Bessie were tenfold because of her skin color and the times in which she was traveling.

I had a lot to learn from Bessie and she was happy to teach it, pleased that I hung on her every word. Bessie and I empathized and appreciated each other despite our obvious differences. Our friendship, which took place during the last three years of her life, transcended racial, regional and generational differences. She became like my surrogate aunt. Often, I called her Aunt Bessie or Aunt B and she loved these endearments. Sometimes I took to her nickname, BB, and in light moments of mock-indignation, I declared Bessie Beatrice! She called me Ann and sometimes Miss Ann, and in reverse light moments of mock indignation, she declared Miss Nancy Ann Marie! (my given name). In true biker tradition, she gave me a nickname, too: Opal, for the blue-white stone that changes colors with the light, "just like your moods," she once quipped. Bessie reserved Opal for times when I was not at my best. There came a surprising day when Aunt B sent me a ring with a small opal stone. I still wear it on daunting days or when I have the blues. The ring is my symbolic way of conjuring Bessie’s strength and resilience in the darkness.

I was honored and moved when Bessie asked me to write her biography. We made a pact and I promised her I would preserve and write her story and her truth. This is how I came to be Bessie’s authorized biographer and the primary source on her life. While my name has gone largely unnoticed as the author-originator of the stories on Bessie, much of what can be found on the Internet today stems, in fact, from the material I had selected to focus on in my stories all those years ago.

The title and subtitle of the new book didn’t come overnight. My African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road came to me after months of thought about the message I want to convey. The titles reflect my feelings of admiration for Bessie, our experiences of womanhood, of life, and of our different lives on the road as women in a male-dominated milieu. In the new book, I am shining light on Bessie Stringfield from a deeper and more personal perspective, that of two different womenone elder, one younger, one black, one whitewho shared an unusual kinship.

Bessie’s popularity today is a clear indication of her cultural significance to this generation in their quest to discover accomplished hidden figures, particularly those of color, from the past. The first viral video on Bessie earned 20 million views and spawned several variations that are still being shared on Facebook and YouTube amongst thousands of new viewers. Yet Bessie’s posthumous, 21st century fame poses a puzzling question:

How could a local Miami woman become the subject of a viral video, the object of thousands of Google hits, a symbol of empowerment a quarter-century after her death—and yet still remain a mystery to her fans? In answer to that question, here is how Bessie’s story grew from a tiny seed into a tree with such far-reaching limbs.

Bessie was known around Miami-Dade to her friends, coworkers and a select group of bikers, but the preservation, planting and spreading of the seed of Bessie's legacy began with two women: Bessie Stringfield and her writer/interpreter and recordist. Bessie and I were essentially a team. I knew her during a slow, reflective time in her later life when her health had declined. She knew she was facing her mortality and was quietly preparing for it. In the way of many frail elderly, Bessie shared meandering, circular memories with me over time.

But what do I mean by interpreter? Since most people outside of publishing are unfamiliar with how professional interviewers, narrative journalists and historians craft their work, here is the backstory of how I worked with Bessie Stringfield:

I never asked Bessie to “sit” for me so I could do my audio recordings all at once, and certainly not in a formal setting. We weren’t doing “20/20” or “60 Minutes.” I conducted the recordings over time, with lots of contact in between as our friendship grew. Bessie, in the manner of many frail elderly, did not tell stories in a linear order. She did not answer questions directly and nor all at once. I read between the lines of her speech and learned, Never underestimate the mind and motives of this uncanny elder. I listened patiently and just let her do her thing.

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With empathy for Bessie and my years of writing and editing experience, I structured and crafted the raw material of Bessie’s meandering memories into a specific storyline, or plot, of my own creation. I interpreted, or translated, the raw material into narrative works of prose. Embedded in my narratives are my creative stamp and my perspectives and conclusions on the meaning of Bessie’s achievements. That is how Bessie Stringfield grew from my personal role model to the heroine-protagonist of my stories, and how she went from a woman unknown outside of Miami, to an Internet celebrity and symbolic figure to thousands of fans today.

I came to feel that Bessie needed a title, even if just between us two. I thought of her as My African American Queen of the Road. One day, when I trotted that title out in conversation, Bessie cackled with glee and bemusement. 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.”

Crown Publishing released Hear Me Roar in 1996, three years after Bessie’s passing and my eulogy of her in American Iron. The book was covered by CNN, Entertainment Weekly and other media outlets, including The New York Times with an article reporting on my work about Bessie. The piece, reported by Jed Stevenson and called Hear Me Roar: A Woman’s Symphony on the Road, is in the paper’s archives.

Six years later in 2002, Bessie was inducted to the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame. In her honor I excerpted and adapted my story "Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue" from Hear Me Roar for the Hall of Fame Museum website. I was pleased and proudon behalf of Bessie and myselfwhen my story Bessie Stringfield: Inducted 2002 was recited to the audience at her induction ceremony. My unabridged story remained posted on the Hall of Fame museum website for sixteen years and was read by millions. I abridged the piece in early 2018; the short version is still posted. For ten years I also posted stories about Bessie on AnnFerrar.com, my former site at the Authors Guild.

Enter social media. When Facebook launched in 2004, fascination with Bessie's story as I had written/interpreted it began to spread exponentially around cyberspace, sometimes in paraphrased bits and pieces, sometimes verbatim and whole, but, I might add, far too often without citation of the primary source. My online story for the Hall of Fame museum, Bessie Stringfield: Inducted 2002, excerpted from Hear Me Roar, became the most widely disseminated but uncredited resource, despite its copyright notice.

Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.

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As word of Bessie spread via these stories, gradually hundreds of Google hits appeared. From those, eventually the viral video was produced by Timeline Media, and hot venues including Broadly.vice.com and The Heroine Collective took notice of Bessie as well. Now there are thousands of Google hits. Bessie has finally received the recognition she deserves as readers and viewers have learned of her courage and achievements. That is how the late Bessie Stringfield, Miami motorcycle queen, went from hidden figure to Internet celebrity and cultural icon.

Bessie's posthumous legend began with the quiet scribbling of a single penliterally—on blank sheets of legal paper. I wrote her eulogy for American Iron and first drafts of Bessie Stringfield: The Color Blue and other stories for Hear Me Roar in longhand on yellow legal pads. While writing and musing on Bessie, I sipped endless cups of coffee as I sat in a window booth at Socrates, my favorite Greek diner in Tribeca in Lower Manhattan. Often my motorcycle was parked outside on the sidewalk on Franklin Street. I lived in Tribeca in the 1980s till the mid-1990s, when it was still a mostly desolate neighborhood of creative people like me who did not fit into a regular 9-to-5 mold. The diner was my idea of "eating out." Back then, comfort food was also the only thing I could afford on my income from freelance writing and my day-job at a non-profit foundation. After the diner, I walked home to my apartment and fine-tuned my drafts in a computer with a box-shaped monitor and floppy disks.

Today, the private Bessie Stringfield remains seductively mysterious to the world for a simple reason: I haven’t released any more information about Bessie yet. It’s still tucked away in the audio tapes that I recorded, in the pages of my diaries written during our friendship in the early 1990s, and in a few other hidden places as well.

Bessie never felt that only a black woman could translate her story; she surrounded herself with diverse friends, coworkers and romantic partners. I was among that lucky, motley handful toward the end. Being a writer and a biker who became her trusted friend, I am the only person to whom Bessie gave her life story. Why does this matter? It matters, quite honestly, because I am the only living primary source who can put all the pieces together. The story is unique and cannot be written by anyone else.

From the positive feedback and tremendous interest that I’ve received already, I know that Bessie's story of grit and determination against the odds has struck a chord with a new generation. Parts of her story, however, have also stirred up debate and speculation.

In my close-up view, Bessie Stringfield was both a product of her era, yet simultaneously, she was way ahead of her time. She was a solo act of contradictions. She became a Roman Catholic but married and divorced six times. I knew that the younger Bessie was bold and even audacious, and that she had certainly withstood her share of racial prejudice. Yet she did not allow society's limited views of African Americans to define or limit her or the way she interacted with people who did not look like her. Bessie was biracial but lived her life as a black woman. Sometimes, without being asked, spontaneously she brought up that her late mother had been white. Bessie's childhood was complicated as she described it to me. I've seen the adjective Dickensian in articles compiled decades after her death from secondary and tertiary material.

Not long ago, the venerable New York Times recognized Bessie with an obituary among other notable yet overlooked women of color. They were perplexed by contradictions in her past. Knowing Bessie on an emotional level, I viewed them as difficult secrets and parts of the untold story that need to be handled with the care and context that only a long-form work (my book with unreleased material) can allow. On this I would not budge. The paper dubbed them "untruths" and moved on. Either way, readers will have to wait for my book for a trip into Bessie's labyrinth.

The recognition, the curiosity, the fame and the debate over Bessie Stringfield show that even a quarter-century after her death, Bessie’s achievements resound strongly in the 21st-century wave of rediscovered heroines and bold female role models. But sorting out the compartments of Bessie Stringfield retrospectively is an impossible task for those who never met her. That's why the thousands of Google hits on Bessie can only go in circles and stop at dead ends.

On social media and in emails I receive from my readers here and abroad, people are in awe of Bessie Stringfield. Some of you say things like, “Wow, Bessie was a badass woman!” I get it. Bessie was strong and the word reflects today’s movement for women’s empowerment.

Women of color have told me they feel an emotional connection to Bessie. They view her as a symbol of freedom and a role model for being unapologetically black. Women regardless of race have told me they view Bessie as a symbol of pride in gender, reflecting admiration for more overlooked women taking their rightful place in the pantheon. Men love Bessie, tooshe represents the underdog who made the upset victory.

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As noted earlier, Bessie took control of the handlebars as a long-distance motorcycle rider in an era when it was rare for any woman, and unprecedented for a woman of color. Today, rise and ride” has become a powerful sentiment among a new generation of black women bikers who are, in effect, part of Bessie Stringfield's legacy. I am heartened to know that my stories have such great relevance today and that Bessie Stringfield’s courage, achievements and individuality have inspired so many in this generation.

Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.

For all of her nerve in her youth as depicted in the snappy Facebook videos, I want my readers to know that Bessie was equally brave as an elder when facing serious challenges of a different kind. That is what made me cherish her.

Bessie Stringfield has always been the star of my narratives. Even though my perspectives and conclusions are embedded in my stories on Bessie’s life, as the author I have stayed in the background. But that is no longer possible given the public fascination with my late friend and the mail I receive. Bessie’s story might have remained buried in her sleepy Miami neighborhood had not this out-of-town author from New York seen the importance of recording her on tape, preserving those recordings and then writing her truth.

I was honored and humbled to be asked. Why did Bessie ask me to be her biographer? Well, for starters, Bessie believed that the Man Upstairs ordained everything; to her, there were no coincidences. The first thing Bessie intuited was the old soul in me, born of my Italian American tradition of holding one’s elders on high. I was also a biker who understood and identified with Bessie on that tomboy level. Plus, I was a female writer with a track record of covering women's lives. It made sense that she entrusted me with her story.

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Bessie also realized that I saw in her what her peers in Miami did not necessarily see. They were impressed and even proud of her for being a lone black woman riding a Harley unabashedly around town. I, on the other hand, was a 35-year-old New Yorker coming into the prime of her own womanhood and writing career. As such, I had a different view of this maverick woman. I didn’t see Bessie as a treasure reserved only for the local black community or as an eccentric Floridian destined for Southern folklore. In the words of a mutual friend, "Bessie had gravitas. You don't forget a person like that."

Indeed. I saw Bessie Stringfield as an unsung trailblazer. As a senior, Bessie was still riding Harleys for as long as she was physically able, but for the last decade of her life, she chose to retreat from the local spotlight. As her health declined, she retreated from the road as well. Toward the end of her life, Bessie thought about what legacy she wanted to leave. That's precisely when I walked into her life. I knew that her story needed to be preserved and told beyond the limits of South Florida. So that's what I did.

Where has the writer/interpreter been all this time? I’ve been living my life with its share of challenges and hardships, a mostly hidden figure myself. Throughout the years, however, I have given selected interviews to reporters and film and TV documentarians, including the production company that produced both Glory Road: The Legacy of the African American Motorcyclist and a four-part series called American Biker. These aired on PBS and The History Channel around the time of Bessie’s Hall of Fame induction. I have also contributed to several museum exhibits with sections on pioneering women bikers. In all of these projects, Bessie has always been the object of everyone’s fascination. And in every case, my contributions to these projects were given as a labor of love.

Bessie Stringfield’s time is clearly now. Culturally and historically significant figures tend to take their place in history only after enough time has passed to enable perspective and appreciation. That is the case with Bessie Stringfield. And with the wisdom borne of facing and overcoming challenges in my own life, it’s my time as an author again, too. Bessie has a legacy for her courage and outstanding achievements. I have a legacy for mine as an author-originator and as a woman who has persevered through obstacles in my own life since her passing. Often, even now when faced with difficulty, I still ask myself, What would Bessie have told me to do?”

My seminal stories on Bessie are the product of the contents in my heart, not just my head. That said, I'd like to share a powerful sentiment from rocker Melissa Etheridge, who was quoted in a book called A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon. In the book, Etheridge said: "We are getting older, and we are getting wiser, and we are getting freer. And when you get the wisdom and the truth, then you get the freedom and you get power, and then–look out. Look out."

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On that resounding note, I invite my readers and fans of Bessie Stringfield to enjoy this website for a fresh, authentic and primary-sourced visit with two of the world's most unlikely biker chicks. — Ann Ferrar

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Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.