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
All content (text and photos) on this website Copyright © 1993 - 2019, Ann Ferrar. 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 recorded by the author. Library of Congress Registration Numbers TX0004341049; TX8473178; TXU2088760; and 1-635-1434791. The author reserves all rights to her works and properties, including stories in books, articles in periodicals, online biographies, oral readings and visual content. This website contains previews of the authorized biography of Bessie Stringfield, My African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me, a Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road. Ferrar's stories and story elements must not be pirated, imitated, adapted to other media, duplicated, scanned, stored or otherwise plagiarized in any media. More copyright guidelines at bottom and in top pop-up box. Thank you for respecting the author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield.
Prelude: Ann Ferrar on Writing Bessie's Truth
Behind the Authorized Biography of a Daring Motorcycle Queen
Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) was an exceptional woman of color and a motorcycling pioneer who rose above racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era. Bessie toured the USA eight times on her vintage Harleys and was a World War II courier. Relying on her courage, resourcefulness and faith, she rode alone on primitive roads despite the risks to lone female travelers. She faced the obstacles and dangers imposed on African Americans in the era of segregation. Bessie Stringfield was a black motorcycle queen who rode across America when it was rare for any woman, and unprecedented for a woman of color. I had the good fortune to call her my mentor and friend in the later years of her life.
On this home page, I tell the backstory of how I met Bessie Stringfield and became her biographer. Bessie rose in stature from a local Miami figure to a posthumous global legend who is as enigmatic as she is admirable. And so, in response to the stream of emails I receive from readers, this website contains previews of what is, in effect, the authorized biography of Bessie Stringfield. I have chosen to write the upcoming book by combining two literary forms, biography and memoir. I call it My African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Bessie had two monikers among locals in 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 is regarded as a culturally significant figure to a new generation that is inspired by her bravery as a woman of color and by her defiance of traditional gender roles. When Bessie and I met late in her life, we could not have known that in 2017, there would be a viral video on a venue called Facebook, plus large women’s motorcycle rides and achievement awards in her name. And we could not have known that in 2018, The New York Times would recognize Bessie with an obituary in its "Overlooked" series, which features notable yet overlooked women of color. Educators have begun to introduce Bessie to children and teenagers as well.
Regardless of the posthumous recognition, Bessie Stringfield died before many of her 21st century admirers were born. And so, she remains a mysterious figure, alluringly unknown. But she was not unknown to me. That is because with Bessie’s blessing and encouragement, I recorded her oral history exclusively on a series of audio tapes during the last three years of her life, becoming the only author 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. I have kept that promise quietly over the years. But now, staying quiet is no longer possible given the widespread interest in her. So, let me finally step out and introduce myself: I am the storyteller, the messenger and the interpreter, if you will, behind much of what is known about Bessie Stringfield today.
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. Bessie had been riding motorcycles for more than 60 years. On 27 Harleys and one Indian Scout, she had logged at least a million miles in all kinds of conditions. By today's standards, Bessie's earlier bikes were primitive. Some circumstances she found herself in were treacherous because of the rutted roads; others were treacherous because of racial prejudice in the mid-20th century South. However, not all of Bessie's experiences involved struggle; she shared joys, triumphs and bonds with all kinds of people. During difficult times, Bessie drew upon her faith in her deity and constant companion, the Man Upstairs, as well as her resilience and her ability to form diverse friendships.
The setting for our first encounter could not have been more apropos. It was a niche motorcycle museum near Columbus, Ohio, the heart of the country as it were. 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). That was my debut book of narrative non-fiction, in which I would introduce Bessie to a global audience with my story “Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue.”
As I grew to know Bessie and peer into her past, I became impressed with her nerve and resourcefulness. As noted earlier, 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 at the museum, we began exchanging stories as we stood in front of the hand-drawn portrait 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. Except the biggest challenge I'd faced that day on the road was the wind whipping my flying hair into my mouth.
It dawned on me that the elderly woman with whom I was speaking had risen above obstacles that might have defeated a weaker person. I realized that long before the women’s movement and 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 sensed there was nothing “normal” about this elder despite her diminutive, unassuming appearance. The brief paragraph on the museum wall could never convey what Bessie was all about nor reach a wide audience. I wanted to write about her in detail and bring her out into the open. I became determined to do so.
Bessie Stringfield didn’t live to see herself in any of my stories. When she died in 1993, I wrote "Bessie Stringfield: A Tribute to a Life-Long Harley Girl." In essence it was a eulogy, published as an article in American Iron Magazine. It introduced Bessie to Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycle devotees in the USA and abroad. This was followed by "Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue," published in two editions of Hear Me Roar (1996; 2000).
A few years later when Bessie was inducted to the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002, my stories were recited to the audience at her induction ceremony. Excerpts from both my longer and abridged works have been posted at different times on the website of the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, where they have been read and referenced by thousands ever since. That is why today, most of what is known about Bessie Stringfield can be traced back to my seminal stories. These were published in the early and mid-1990s and were adapted by me for the museum website. There is no other living primary source for the complete spectrum of the life of Bessie Stringfield.
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.
As word of Bessie spread exponentially around cyberspace, I stayed under the radar, observing the curiosity and enthusiasm that took hold of a new generation in search of heroines and heroes. I fulfilled my promise to Bessie long ago, but now there is more for me to do—for readers who do remember me as the author-originator of the stories, for new viewers of the viral video, for students who write to me, and for industry professionals—from news and other media to museum curators and academics—all of whom have contacted me to express their interest in Bessie Stringfield and their desire to know more.
I have heard from readers from across a wide range of the social, cultural and educational landscape, from the USA and Canada to Europe (England, Spain, France, Germany) and Down Under (Australia, New Zealand). The spirited video, posted on Facebook by Timeline in December 2016, shows only her youthful, rebellious sass in two-and-a-half minutes. But the untold Bessie Stringfield whom I knew was a multi-dimensional woman who cannot be captured in sound bites or frozen in captions. The "rebel icon" (as she was labeled by Timeline but not by me) grew older and was not free of flaws and regrets, nor of secrets and painful memories that she tried to push down.
Bessie asked me not to write about certain things until well after her death. I respected her wishes, keeping parts of the story in the back of an allegorical memory box for a quarter-century. One reader wrote to tell me that I'm equally responsible for what is not known about Bessie Stringfield. Fair enough. Even The New York Times couldn't pry certain things out of me for their obituary, since I just wasn't ready when they called.
Bessie was a role model, a friend and even a muse. At the same time, I acknowledge something Bessie had in common with most heroines, heroes and with the rest of us: flaws and conflicts. My book is taking a deeper look at those. I have a balanced view of the complex woman who is the object of everyone's questions. This website is merely a selected preview of what is to come; it is not the place for me to unfold the layers. Since I knew the woman personally, my approach combines biography and memoir, each with my own views and creative stamp. Being a writer and a biker who earned Bessie's trust, I am the only person to whom Bessie gave her life story and whom she allowed to record to her. Thus, the story is unique and cannot be written by anyone else.
Over the last three years of her life, Bessie and I talked about how we were each in our prime during our most adventurous, respective road trips. But our journeys and defiance of convention were half-a-century apart and we were each 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. The story cannot be conveyed in a meaningful way without it.
My forthcoming 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 racial heritage actually 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? Still, we connected.
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 much greater 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 when I hung on her every word. Our friendship transcended racial, ethnic, regional and generational differences. She became like my surrogate aunt in some ways. Often I called her Aunt Bessie, Aunt B, or My Bessie, and she loved it. Sometimes I took to her nickname, BB, the initials for Bessie Beatrice, her first and middle names. She called me Ann or Miss Ann in the Southern tradition. In 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 blue or daunting days. I regard the ring as a way of conjuring Bessie’s strength and resilience. (But thank goodness I didn't stick with my first working title for the book, Ebony, Opal and Chrome.)
I was moved when Bessie asked me to write her biography. I promised her I would preserve and write her story and her truth. This is how I came to be Bessie’s biographer and the primary source on her life, even though my name has gone largely unnoticed as the author-originator of the stories on Bessie that are circulating today. The title and subtitle for the upcoming book didn’t come to me 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 after many months of thought about the message I want to convey. The titles reflect admiration for Bessie, our experiences of womanhood, of life, and of our different lives on the road as women in a mostly white- and male-dominated milieu. This time, I am writing about Bessie Stringfield from a deeper and more personal perspective, that of two different women—one elder, one younger, one black, one white—who shared an unusual kinship. Bessie and I were imperfect women who did not lead lives according to our families' expectations. Our choices set each of us up to face challenges without familial support and sometimes, to feel alone even in relationships.
The widespread interest in Bessie today is a clear indication of her social and cultural significance in this generation's quest to discover accomplished hidden figures, particularly those of color. The first viral video on Bessie earned 20 million views and spawned several variations that are still being shared on social media among 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 hundreds of Google hits, a symbol of women's empowerment and racial pride a quarter-century after her death—and yet still remain a mystery to the admirers who see her that way?
Bessie was known to her friends, romantic partners, coworkers and a select group of bikers in Miami-Dade, but the preservation and planting of the seed of Bessie's posthumous legacy began with two women: her and me. I knew Bessie during a slow, reflective time in her later life when her health had greatly 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. 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 Meet the Press. I conducted the recorded interviews over time, with lots of informal contact in between, during which time I wrote my thoughts and impressions in my diaries. Bessie's mind wandered so she did not tell stories in a linear order nor all at once. Patiently, I read between the lines of her fragmented speech and learned, Never underestimate the mind and motives of this uncanny elder.
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.
With empathy for Bessie and my years of writing and editing experience, I structured and crafted the raw primary material of Bessie’s meandering memories into a storyline, or plot, of my own devising. 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. This is how Bessie Stringfield became the heroine/protagonist of my stories in print and online. Next, my stories and/or parts of them were spread by others on the internet and social media. Thus, Bessie Stringfield went from hidden figure to becoming known and regarded as an inspirational figure that people can read about today, in online venues like The Heroine Collective, Broadly.vice.com, the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, and even in web encyclopedias. Most of the information on Bessie in these places can be traced to my primary material and stories in American Iron and Hear Me Roar, both of which are copyrighted stories that were excerpted by me for the Hall of Fame website.
During our friendship, 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, though until this website I never used it in print. 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.”
Yes, they did. The nuns also drill-instructed the lost art of penmanship, a futile effort on their part with this kid. Well before I reached high school, my scrawling was barely legible since it could never keep up with my racing thoughts, then or now. Still, for me there has always been something intimate about the relationship of thoughts and words to pen and paper. Thus, Bessie's posthumous legend began with the quiet scribbling of a single pen—literally—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 (cursive script) 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 of Franklin Street within my line of sight. I lived in Tribeca in the 1980s till the mid-1990s, when it was still a fairly desolate neighborhood of creative people like me who did not fit into a regular 9-to-5 mold. The diner (now long-gone due to post-9/11/01 gentrification) was my way of "eating out" on my income from freelance writing and my day job as a writer for a non-profit foundation. After the diner, I returned to my apartment and fine-tuned my cursive drafts in my buzzy computer with its box-shaped monitor and floppy disks.
Fast-forward to today. Bessie remains mysterious for a simple reason: I haven’t released more information about her yet. It’s still tucked away in the audio tapes that I recorded, in the pages of my diaries written during our friendship and in a few other hidden places as well. From the positive feedback and wide-ranging interest that I’ve received already, I know that Bessie's story of determination has struck a chord with a new generation. However, parts of her story that I released long ago have stirred up some debate and speculation.
In my close-up view, Bessie Stringfield was both a product of her era, yet simultaneously, she was 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's racial heritage actually was mixed, but she lived her life as a black woman. Sometimes, 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.
In 2018 The New York Times was perplexed by contradictions in Bessie's early life. Knowing her 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) can allow. On this I would not budge. The paper dubbed them "untruths." Either way, readers will have to wait for the book for a trip into Bessie's labyrinth, since sorting out her compartments retrospectively is an impossible task for those who never met her.
On social media and in emails I receive from readers here and abroad, people are in awe of Bessie's daring. Some 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. "Rise and Ride" has become a powerful sentiment among a new generation of black women riders who view themselves as torch-bearers of Bessie's legacy.
Women regardless of race have told me they view Bessie as a symbol of pride in gender and a bucking of traditional roles, reflecting appreciation for more overlooked women taking their place in the pantheon. Male readers, too, are impressed by Bessie—she represents the underdog who made the upset victory. I am heartened to know that Bessie Stringfield's courage has inspired so many in this generation, and that my stories about Bessie have such great relevance today. But for all of her nerve as depicted in Timeline's "rebel icon" videos on social media, 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.
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.
Why did Bessie ask me to be her biographer? For starters, Bessie believed that the Man Upstairs ordained everything; to her, there were no coincidences. To understand Bessie Stringfield is to understand that she never felt only a black woman could write her story. She surrounded herself with diverse friends and romantic partners. 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 author with a track record of writing about women for newspaper syndication and for national magazines (including a mutual heroine, Aretha Franklin, whom I interviewed shortly after I met Bessie). So it made sense that Bessie entrusted me with her story.
Bessie also came to realize that I saw something in her that her peers in the African American community did not see. They were impressed with her for being a black woman riding a Harley unabashedly around town, or in today's parlance, they were proud of her for being unapologetically black. I, on the other hand, was a 35-year-old New Yorker in the prime of my own womanhood and writing career. I had a different view of this maverick woman. I didn’t see Bessie as a local treasure or a source of pride reserved only for the black community or as an eccentric Floridian destined for Southern folklore. In the words of a mutual friend from up north, "Bessie had gravitas. You don't forget a person like that." Indeed. I saw Bessie Stringfield as an undiscovered feminist who had predated the movement.
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 with my pen, notepad and tape recorder. Where have I been all this time since her passing? I’ve been living my life with its share of challenges, a mostly hidden figure myself.
Bessie's story continues to fascinate readers. Through the years I have granted selected interviews, including one to Jed Stevenson of The New York Times in 1996. His article, called Hear Me Roar: A Woman's Symphony on the Road, discusses my work on Bessie and other early female bikers, and is in the paper's archives. Later on I was contacted by Harley-Davidson's Enthusiast magazine, Broadly.vice.com and others.
Documentary filmmakers have reached out to me, including the production company behind Glory Road: The Legacy of the African American Motorcyclist and a series called American Biker. These aired on PBS and The History Channel around the time of Bessie’s Hall of Fame induction. In 2018, CNBC's Jay Leno's Garage featured a segment on Bessie. I have contributed to museum exhibits with sections on pioneering women bikers, Bessie always being the center of attention. In each of these projects, I donated my time and contributions.
Clearly, Bessie Stringfield’s time is 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 overcoming challenges in my own life, it’s my time as an author again, too. Bessie has a legacy for her courage, individuality and exemplary achievements. I have a legacy for mine as an author-originator and as a woman of resilience in my own right.
In closing this backstory to my upcoming biography and memoir of Bessie Stringfield, I'd like to share a sentiment from another strong and resilient woman, rocker Melissa Etheridge. She 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." On that resounding note, I invite my readers to take a literary ride with two of the world's most unlikely biker chicks. — Ann Ferrar