African American Queen of the Road
Bessie Stringfield: The First Stories of a Courageous 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, friend and protégé of Bessie. Ferrar's narratives shed light on Stringfield's hidden achievements and talents in the pre-Civil Rights era, sparking global fascination with Bessie that exists to this day. 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 Woman's Journey Through Faith, Resilience and the Road."
© Copyright 1990-2022, Ann Ferrar. Ann Ferrar reserves all rights to this content and to her earlier stories of Bessie Stringfield, upon which this content is based. The author's narratives on the life and times of Bessie Stringfield are original, primary-sourced and have been published in print and on the web from 1993 to the present. Library of Congress Copyright Registration Numbers TXu-2-160-705; TXu-2-088-760, et al. WGA Registration I338479, et al. These narratives, written by the author with her expression of thought and other proprietary story elements, are protected against theft by copyright and intellectual property laws. These stories are not in the public domain for unauthorized use by other parties. Strictly prohibited are adaptations and other derivative, imitative works in any media. Please respect the author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield by adhering to legal and professional ethics.
The authentic stories of Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) were borne of Ann Ferrar's audio recordings of Bessie, conducted and 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. These exclusive tapes and many other conversations between the two women hold hidden details of Bessie's private life, known only to Bessie and Ann.
In her published copyrighted narratives, Ferrar described how Bessie Stringfield carved her own path despite racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era. Ferrar wrote of how Stringfield's riding career spanned six decades and included civilian service as a motorcycle dispatch rider during World War II. Bessie traveled around the USA eight times despite the risks posed by bigotry and systemic racism. Still, Bessie chose to settle in the South, in Miami, Florida.
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 or rebellion, but rather in how she reacted to each situation and each individual. That was her true superpower."
Yet Bessie Stringfield had been overlooked and was undiscovered even by Black and women's historians. In her writings and live seminars, Ferrar noted that Bessie had carved her own path before society was ready; thus, no movement of women on motorcycles followed Bessie during her lifetime.
The author recognized the importance of preserving and writing Bessie Stringfield's life, starting with a eulogy in 1993 that was published internationally. Today, Ferrar's stories have inspired a new generation with tales of Stringfield's bravery and talents. The power of the pen set the stage for Bessie to have a riding legacy today. In 2002, Bessie Stringfield was inducted to the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Ann's story of Bessie from "Hear Me Roar" was read by the emcee during Bessie's induction to this Hall of Fame and others.
Inwardly, Bessie Stringfield was as secretive as she was daring. Only in her twilight years did Stringfield reflect back on her life with her trusted friend, author Ann Ferrar. Here, read the backstory of the personal legacy project between the two women that grew from Bessie's oral tradition to Ferrar's prose narratives.
Ferrar's narratives are the only original, primary-sourced stories of Bessie Stringfield that brought her out of Miami's small radius to inspire a worldwide audience. "African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Woman's Journey Through Faith, Resilience and the Road" is Ferrar's upcoming, definitive biography.
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 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. Her bright dark eyes, which had seen triumph and tragedy over eight decades, were nearly obscured by the reflection of her thick glasses. Bessie Stringfield was barely recognizable from the young, robust Black woman motorcycle rider she had been in her prime.
Yet there was something about this diminutive woman that drew me to her and made me look past the glare of her glasses. 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. And while peering at me, Bessie knew she was being seen. We shared an instant bond, in which our disparities of race, age, ethnic and regional backgrounds melted away.
In the summer of 1990, while I was researching, doing interviews and riding around the country for my first book, Hear Me Roar, I met Bessie Stringfield of Miami, Florida. We hit it off right away. I learned that this tiny elder, who in her prime had done "trick" or "fancy" riding, and served as a civilian courier for the army during World War II, was still the same woman. But now she was an elderly woman, so nobody took note of her past. She was long estranged from her old biker cronies in Miami and she had no family to keep her story alive when she was gone. That is when I walked into Bessie Stringfield's life.
Except for the fact that Bessie and I were both female, American bikers drawn to the open road, our backgrounds couldn't have been more different. Bessie was a Southern Black woman born in 1911. She had lived through most of the history of the 20th century, including Jim Crow segregation. I am a white woman born two generations later, in 1955. I was raised in South Brooklyn, New York, in a community of mostly first- and second-generation European immigrants. As a girl, I was raised in the Italian tradition where the past coexists with the present, and where senior women are venerated. So, my respect and curiosity about Bessie Stringfield’s past was on the same continuum as my respect and curiosity for her present. Motorcycles had brought us together at first, but our mutual respect and the inter-generational connection between us is why the world is able to read about Bessie Stringfield today. Perhaps if Bessie and I had been more alike, and if we had similar backgrounds, we might have taken each other for granted, and then this generation wouldn't know of her now.
As a child, I had never heard the term Jim Crow, but I "met" him in the summer of 1964, when I was nine. I grew up not far from the Coney Island boardwalk, and it was there that I witnessed racism for the first time. Despite pressure from advocates of the modern Civil Rights Movement, the white owner of a historic old amusement park shut the place down forever rather than admit Black families. I thought such prejudice only happened in the South, but I was naive. This new awareness of racism everywhere ended the innocence of my childhood. I have never forgotten the "before" and "after" of that moment.
Fast-forward to a hot day in August, 1990. Bessie, in declining health, sensed the "old soul" in 35-year-old me. Thus, on that day, and with Bessie's blessing and encouragement, I became the steward of her story as well as her friend. Soon I began my work to conduct interviews with Bessie and audio-record her reminiscing on tape in response to my questions, which were aimed to elicit certain memories. No one had ever questioned her thoroughly before—not even her ex-husbands, nor her old biker buddies, from whom she had become estranged decades earlier.
As Bessie's biographer and friend, I interpreted and wrote Bessie's hidden history and the meaning of her achievements in her era, bringing her out of Miami's small radius to an international readership. Bessie and I both realized that her story would have died with her in 1993, had I not captured and handled the story in the way that I did. I wrote it as a narrative that presented Bessie as the achiever that she truly was, and I included quotes from my exclusive tapes.
I promised Bessie I would keep her story alive and fulfilled that promise. And that, dear readers, led to the creation of the "Bessie Stringfield Story," as it were, which sparked the world's admiration for my late friend. My works are actually a copyrighted collection of stories, essays, audio-recordings, quotes and photos. My stories on Bessie Stringfield helped get her inducted posthumously to the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002, and to receive a belated obituary in The New York Times in 2018.
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 motorcycle rider in my native New York City. I hung on her every word while Bessie told me how she rode her Harley-Davidsons around 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.
In addition to her courage and multiple talents, I knew Bessie had grace and an expansive outlook toward all people. This took inner courage and tolerance—plus intelligence and street smarts—during the treacherous Jim Crow years. I sensed Bessie had a certain gravitas coupled with faith-based humility, a combination to which even some unlikely people responded.
I wrote of how these virtues kept Bessie resilient and level-headed while she traveled alone during one of the most frightful periods in American history. I am now expanding on the short-form narratives about Bessie that I published a quarter-century ago. I am writing her definitive biography, African American Queen of the Road: A Woman's Journey Through Faith, Resilience and the Road. The new book contains details of her private life known only to Bessie and me, along with other hidden corners I discovered with deeper research over time and interviews with her peers, who are now deceased.
Bessie Stringfield was under the radar—unknown to the larger public and overlooked even by Black and women's historians. There was no archival evidence, and as mentioned in the introduction, there was no movement of women bikers in her lifetime who recognized or followed her. Bessie Stringfield was a solo, hidden figure. The most prescient thing I did was conduct interviews and record Bessie on audio tape with her permission and encouragement, during the last three years of her life. The exclusive tapes that I produced and recorded are the only sound recordings of the late Bessie Stringfield in existence. From there, I shed light on her achievements and character in my prose narratives, which date back to the 1990s. So in a sense, the new biography has been 30 years in the making. All good things come in their proper time.
In response to tremendous worldwide fascination with Bessie, I posted this website as a retrospective of my copyrighted stories on Bessie, 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 after sundown" and far worse. Yet Bessie would not be stopped. Nor would she let herself be defined by anyone who believed she was "less than."
Given everything that Bessie Stringfield had lived through, and almost as if her sheer nerve wasn't enough, I pointed out to my readers that she made her long-distance road trips well before the age of interstate highways. Her motorcycles, primitive by today's standards, often had mechanical problems. Drawing once again on her riding talents, along with healthy doses of faith and determination, Bessie persevered astride those heavy bikes on many an unpaved, rutted and muddy road.
My stories explored how Bessie 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 Southern Baptist relatives who scolded her for such "unladylike" behavior. Dismissing their dictate that "nice girls don't ride 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 round the block. When I got out on the street, that's just what I did!"
Given all of Bessie's subsequent achievements on two wheels, I never doubted that she was a natural rider. In my narratives, I wrote of how Bessie did hill-climbing on a stripped-down motorcycle and stopped at the odd carnival here and there, where she did trick or "fancy" riding moves. My first story—the published 1993 eulogy—described how Bessie used her nerve and instinctive talent to try her hand at riding the Indian Scout around the interior walls of a vintage motordrome. She did not make a career of this. The old drome, billed as the Wall of Death, was a huge wooden barrel and nothing like the steel cage in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
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 coming book is called African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Woman's Journey Through Faith, Resilience and the Road.
"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."
In the new book, I am expanding on my short-form published narratives, in which I wrote of how Bessie dodged the hard-balls that rednecks and even the Klan itself flung at her. 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."
Here I will clarify an important theme in my writings about Bessie Stringfield—what it means for me to explore how race influenced Bessie's life, among other key factors. To my African American readers: Please understand that it is not my view of race as a white woman two generations removed from Bessie's generation. Obviously I did not grow up immersed in Black culture nor have I lived through Black history. While I have been subjected to ethnic prejudice at times, I have never been subjected to racial prejudice. All that said, nothing can change or bury this fact:
In the last years of her life, I was the person who stepped up to the plate for Bessie Stringfield to record her on tape and to preserve and write her story. I saw Bessie in a certain light of achievement that others in her familiar past had perhaps taken for granted with an attitude along the lines of, "Well, Bessie was really something but that's just how she was."
With me coming into Bessie's life later on, and being a writer with a different background, I saw patterns of accomplishment in her life that jumped out at me. Recognizing that Bessie should have a light shone on her, I unraveled her story in my narratives with context and other elements in my theses, which show Bessie's relevance for today. Because of this, the late Bessie Stringfield has an afterlife, as it were; she has a riding legacy among women bikers in the 21st century. It is notable that some of my Black female readers tell me frankly that even they cannot imagine how hard it must have been for Bessie to ride in the Jim Crow era. Today, these Black women bikers hesitate to compare their 21st-century experiences to Bessie's.
Thus, the biography reflects Bessie Stringfield's experiences of race in her era, as she and I discussed them over the course of our three-year friendship. And so, from her own words and those of her African American peers, with whom I also spent time, I gleaned and wrote that Bessie handled each situation—no matter how tough—with equal parts dignity, equal parts faith, and equal parts level-headedness. In my view, those were her superpowers. I spent time with some of Bessie's closest contemporaries of color, who graciously shared their memories of her, and who were candid in speaking of their own lives in the era of segregation. Those primary conversations are irreplaceable, since most folks, like Bessie herself, are now deceased.
Bessie Stringfield did not live to see herself in any of my stories. The first one I wrote was a eulogy when she passed away in 1993. The eulogy, which I called Bessie Stringfield: A Tribute to a Life-Long Harley Girl, was published as a feature article in an international biker magazine (American Iron, June 1993). My story of Bessie was so beloved by readers that, at the request of other media and museums, it had several more incarnations, the next one in CC Magazine (Jan. 1995). The following year, I made some changes to the text and the story was published as the narrative Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue in my debut book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (NY: Crown, 1996).
Next, in 2002, I was asked by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) to adapt Bessie/Blue for the website of its American Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, when Bessie was posthumously inducted. Since the AMA actually knew very little about Bessie, the story helped get her inducted to the Hall of Fame. The story was recited by the emcee during her induction ceremony in 2002 at Pickerington, Ohio, near Columbus. The longer version that I wrote for the AMA Hall of Fame website was posted in full, intact, from 2002 until 2017, where it was read by millions of people over the years; an abridged version is still posted. Next, a version was published online for the National Motorcycle Museum of Anamosa, Iowa, called Bessie Stringfield: Southern Distance Rider. Another print version appeared in American Motorcyclist Magazine in March 2003, called The Motorcycle Queen of Miami.
That is how Bessie Stringfield's story, as interpreted and written by me with my expression of thought on her life, was gradually spread around the world. I was—I am—the sole recordist, the author-originator, and the primary source for the complete spectrum of Bessie Stringfield's life. The full spectrum of Bessie's life encompasses that which is celebrated, and that which is mysterious, puzzling and even contradictory. There are many details that I have never published anywhere before; those will be in the forthcoming biography.
Independently reported articles by other journalists have confirmed my early work on Bessie Stringfield and my role as the author-originator of the Bessie Stringfield story. These reports have appeared in The New York Times (see Stephenson, Jed: "Hear Me Roar: A Woman's Symphony on the Road," July 28, 1996), as well as in Harley-Davidson's HOG/Enthusiast Magazine and a host of others. (A selected list is on my author bio page.) And yet, due to rampant internet piracy and plagiarism of my copyrighted works on Bessie Stringfield, you may not always see my name referenced in recycled articles, reductive encyclopedia entries, and videos on Bessie that pop up in search engines today. In fact, in 2017 I abridged the AMA Hall of Fame induction story because I got tired of seeing it all over the web without my byline. So if you missed the longer, more colorful version on the museum website, you're out of luck.
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 classic film that we both enjoyed: The African Queen, a saga of grit and triumph over impossible odds. That was it! I dubbed Bessie 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." Since I had attended Catholic school in my formative years and since Bessie had converted to Catholicism, the faith came up unexpectedly at times.
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—Black, white or otherwise—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 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. While she became a Catholic, she married and divorced six times against the 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. He was the only man to whom she ever made a lifelong commitment.
My original stories of Bessie Stringfield were born of the human connection between her and me, and they predate all the imitative web pieces that pop up in search engines today. There are no latter-day 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.
Bessie was a role model for me in life and on the road. She looked upon me as a sort of protégé and gave advice borne of her solo travels, which I was fortunate to receive. Today, among a new generation of African American women who are inspired by her courage, Bessie has become a symbol of cultural pride. I know this from Zoom meetings with readers and emails I receive, and from hundreds of comments on social media. African American women tell me they feel an emotional connection to Bessie and are proud of her for being unapologetically Black. On social media, some riders have declared, "We stand on her shoulders." A quarter-century ago, when Bessie and I began our quiet legacy project, neither she nor I could have predicted this intense level of connection and posthumous fame.
Different versions of this website have been online for more than 14 years, and Bessie even has a Facebook page. I have heard from readers from New York to New Zealand, ranging from students of generation Z to African American seniors who remember their own lives during segregation, who have graciously shared their memories with me. Museum curators and educators have taken notice. Many of those who contact me have never been near a motorcycle. For me, it is gratifying to know that Bessie Stringfield's legacy is thriving in the 21st century and that it far transcends motorcycling. This is what every legitimate author-originator wants to see: That her stories on a worthy subject have made a wide and lasting impact.
As noted earlier: Due to internet piracy, plagiarism and other forms of exploitation, you may not always see my name referenced in recycled articles, web encyclopedia entries, and videos on Bessie that are floating around the web. Which means: If you've read or viewed any of these Bessie stories elsewhere, or heard spoken presentations but my name was not referenced, it means you were reading, hearing or viewing a pirated or plagiarized article, presentation or video. (Ditto for such pieces in other media.)
It also means: If you've seen articles, encyclopedias, videos or talks with quotes from Bessie but without reference to me—as if Bessie were speaking aloud to no one—it means the quotes were lifted from my published stories. The quotes from Bessie circulating on the web and in videos today are embedded in my exclusive, copyrighted sound recordings of her. As such, they are analogous to lyrics in a recorded song. So, my audio-recorded and prose stories on Bessie Stringfield are not in the public domain. Simply put, this means that no one has the right to adapt or otherwise exploit my material, which includes those quotes and my expression of thought on my subject.
Why am I speaking up about all this? Because it is the downside of Bessie's posthumous fame. In American pop culture—which is obsessed with promotion and commercial branding—there have been some misguided attempts by people to co-opt Bessie, to use her and my material to enhance their own reputations, further their own agendas, and in a few cases, to profit. All of this behavior tampers with the integrity of Bessie’s memory. I will discuss this later in Part Three. Here, I'll just note that this behavior serves to prove that Bessie Stringfield and my stories of Bessie Stringfield are the literary equivalent of conjoined twins, and that together, they have great appeal and a certain compelling power. If this were not the case, then the climbers and profiteers wouldn't care to latch on.
I was lucky to have Bessie alive on this earth for roughly the first three years of my six-year journey of riding, research and writing Hear Me Roar. Often I phoned Bessie from the road to chat, tell her of my adventures and travails, and to hear about hers back in the day. I asked for Bessie's advice and learned a lot from her. Bessie's declining health had forced her to retreat from the road by then, so she loved these phone chats, and so did I.
During one call, she said, "You make me feel like a vicar!" Sometimes Bessie mixed up words or gave them nicknames on purpose, like codes that were unique to her. Here, she meant that she enjoyed living vicariously through me and my adventures on the road. Whenever I was in a situation where I couldn't reach her, I'd ask myself, What would Bessie tell me to do? And I still ask myself that question when faced with any type of challenge, one case being the above-mentioned pirates. Today I'm not actively riding motorcycles. Rather, my adventures are in the writing of Bessie's full-length biography. So my late friend and I have come full circle: Now I am living vicariously through Bessie and her adventures and travails in an earlier era. And in so doing, I am continuing the work that I started on Bessie's behalf in the summer of 1990, still keeping her memory and her story alive to inspire a new generation.
In Part 2 ahead, I continue looking back on my original stories of Bessie Stringfield from back then, 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 each of us experienced in our travels that were two generations apart. — Ann Ferrar