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, an author and protege of Bessie. Ferrar's narratives shed light on Stringfield's hidden achievements in the pre-Civil Rights era, sparking global fascination with Bessie. In PART 1, Ann takes a retrospective look at her stories and previews her coming 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. Library of Congress Registration Numbers: TXu-2-160-705; TXu-2-088-760, et al. Strictly prohibited are adaptations and other derivative works in any media. 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 audio recordings of Bessie, taped by the author for 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 narratives, Ferrar described how Bessie Stringfield broke through racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era. Stringfield's riding career spanned six decades and included service as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider during World War II. Bessie traveled around the USA eight times despite the risks posed by bigotry and systemic racism.
Bessie Stringfield's courage was multi-layered. "She showed as much bravery in keeping her faith, capacity to love, and ability to bond with unlikely people, even when faced with prejudice," says Ferrar. "Because of her humanity, Bessie's life was not defined by struggle, but rather in how she reacted to each situation. That was her true superpower." Yet Bessie had been overlooked and was undiscovered by black and women's historians.
Inwardly, Bessie Stringfield was as secretive as she was daring. Only in her twilight years did Stringfield reflect on her life with Ann Ferrar. Here, read the backstory of the legacy pact between the two women that grew from Bessie's oral tradition to Ferrar's prose narratives. The author's stories have inspired a new generation with tales of Stringfield's extraordinary life.
Ferrar's narratives are the only original, primary-sourced stories on Bessie Stringfield. "African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road" is Ferrar's upcoming, definitive biography. The book includes untold parts of Stringfield's life known only to Bessie and Ann.
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 already an accomplished writer of narrative non-fiction at age 35 when we met, but 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, 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. I knew I had to write her hidden life. So, with Bessie's blessing and encouragement, that is what I did.
Bessie Stringfield was under the radar, unknown to the larger public and overlooked even by black and women's historians. But she was not unknown to me. The most prescient thing I did was record Bessie on audio tape while there was still time. Then I 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. The eulogy had two more incarnations, one in my earlier book Hear Me Roar, and the other on the website of the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame. From there Bessie's story, as written by me, was spread around the world.
This is a retrospective of those stories, in which I described how over 60 years, Bessie racked up about a million miles on 27 Harleys and one Indian Scout motorcycle. I wrote of 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. The nation was marred with signs such as "no coloreds allowed" and worse. Yet Bessie would not be stopped. Nor would she let herself be defined by the bad behavior of others.
Given everything that Bessie Stringfield had lived through, and almost as if her sheer nerve wasn't enough, I pointed out that she made the bulk of her long-distance road trips well before the age of interstate highways, and when her motorcycles, primitive by today's standards, often had mechanical problems. Somehow she persevered astride those bikes on many an unpaved, rutted road.
My stories explored how Bessie Stringfield navigated her way around restrictions on race despite segregation, and 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. She chose a path that was unusual for any woman, and unprecedented for an African American woman.
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.
Bessie was a role model in life and on the road. She 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 other respects. To a new generation of female riders that is inspired by her courage against daunting odds, Bessie has become a symbol of racial and cultural pride in the 21st century. I know this from the emails I have received and from the reactions on social media. Some women have declared, "We stand on her shoulders." Neither Bessie nor I could have predicted this level of posthumous fame when we made our quiet legacy pact a quarter-century ago.
With my personal knowledge of Bessie Stringfield, I knew that her 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 anecdotal conversations; the notes I wrote in my journals; interviews with Bessie's closest African American and other contemporaries; and other research into hidden corners of her life. The resulting book, her definitive biography, is coming. I call it African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road.
In the book I am expanding on my short-form narratives, in which I wrote of how Bessie dodged the hard-balls that rednecks and even the Klan 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. 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.
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. They say they feel an emotional connection to Bessie. They see her as a role model and 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. By her example, Bessie Stringfield has inspired these 21st century women to carry the torch of her legacy among their generation on two wheels.
"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 her, I felt she deserved a regal nickname. 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. 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. Bessie showed up for work on her Harley. 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. My first narrative story—the 1993 eulogy, published in an international magazine—described how Bessie used her instinctive talent to ride her Indian Scout around the walls of a vintage motordrome, which is a huge barrel constructed of wood. 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.
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 today. There are no cyber-substitutes for the real thing. My stewardship of Bessie's story comes with certain responsibilities. Because of Bessie's tendency to be secretive, parts of her early life seem puzzling today. She asked me not to write about certain things until well after her death. Almost three decades have passed, so the time is coming soon with the new biography.
This website went up a couple of years ago and recently I was asked to be the editor of Bessie's Facebook page, 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 during segregation, who have graciously shared their memories.
Many readers who contact me have never been near a motorcycle. Of the professionals who have interviewed me about Bessie, as well as museum curators and educators who write me, very few have been on a motorcycle. For me, it is wonderful to see that Bessie Stringfield's legacy is thriving and far transcends motorcycling. It's what every legitimate author wants to see: that her stories on a worthy subject have made an impact.
In Part 2 ahead, I continue looking back on my stories of Bessie, in which I wrote of her civilian service for the army as a dispatch rider in World War II. Next, in post-war Miami, Bessie was literally the leader of the pack—of men. I discuss the two different Americas that each of us experienced in our travels, two generations apart.