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 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 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.
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 and each individual. That was her true superpower." Yet Bessie had been overlooked and was undiscovered even by black and women's historians.
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 legacy project 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 bravery.
Ferrar's narratives are the only original, primary-sourced stories of 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 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 motorcycle rider 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 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, 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 right away I had to write her hidden life. So, with Bessie's blessing and encouragement, that is exactly 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 during the last three years of her life. These are the only recordings of the late Bessie Stringfield in existence. From there, I shed light on her achievements and character in my prose.
This is a retrospective of my narrative works 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" and 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. Somehow she persevered astride those heavy bikes on many an unpaved, rutted 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 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.
Bessie Stringfield 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 was published in an international magazine and had three more incarnations: one version in my debut book Hear Me Roar (1996), another on the website of the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame (2002) and another in the museum's magazine (2003). From there Bessie's story, as written by me, was gradually spread around the world.
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!" Bessie appeared to have been a natural talent on the Indian Scout and I never doubted it, given all her achievements on two wheels. In my narratives, I wrote of how Bessie did hill-climbing 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 instinctive talent to ride the Indian Scout around the walls of a vintage motordrome, which is a huge barrel constructed of wood. I expanded on that story in my subsequent writings.
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.
"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."
This is an excellent spot for me to 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 vital factors: It is not my view of race as a white woman two generations removed. Nor is it necessarily the view of my contemporary African American readers. That is because they, too, have told me frankly that even they cannot imagine how hard it must have been for Bessie to ride in the Jim Crow years. Thus, the biography reflects Bessie Stringfield's experiences of race in her era, as she told them directly to me. From her own words and those of her African American peers with whom I spoke, I gleaned that Bessie handled each situation with grace, dignity and a level head. In my view, those were her superpowers.
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, 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." 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 copyrighted, original stories of Bessie Stringfield were born of the human connection between her and me, and they predate all the imitative, reductive 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 in life and on the road. She looked upon me as a 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 since 2008 and by now 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 are taking 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 lasting 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 each of us experienced in our travels that were two generations apart. — Ann Ferrar