African American Queen of the Road
Bessie Stringfield: Tales of the Road Queen and Me ( Part 2)
By Ann Ferrar
The original stories of Bessie Stringfield, African American motorcycling pioneer, were written in the 1990s by Ann Ferrar, a journalist, former biker and protege of Bessie. The author's narratives shed light on Bessie's hidden life, talent and achievements in the pre-Civil Rights era and sparked global admiration for Bessie. In PART 2, Ferrar looks at the two different Americas each woman saw and tells how she wrote her stories. Ferrar's upcoming book is 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. Strictly prohibited are adaptations and other derivative projects in any media. Full copyright notice with Library of Congress Registration Numbers are posted in link on menu bar. Please respect the author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield by adhering to copyright law.
Bessie Stringfield and Me
One Road, Two Women, Two Different Americas
By Ann Ferrar
The first time I encountered Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993), we were both visiting the American Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Ohio. 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. At age 35, I was more than 40 years younger than Bessie when we struck up our friendship in the summer of 1990. As a journalist and life-long student of women's and 20th-century American history, I recognized the elder Bessie Stringfield not as a light that had dimmed, but rather as a daring woman of color who had risen above racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era.
As a female biker myself, I loved that Bessie had used her talent and nerve to go against type from an unusual and under-appreciated vantage point: the saddles of the 27 Harley-Davidson motorcycles she owned in her lifetime, plus the Indian Scout that was her first bike. In my original stories of Bessie Stringfield, the first of which was her 1993 eulogy, I wrote of how despite the risks, Bessie had taken eight solo long-distance rides, or "gypsy tours," around the USA. She racked up about a million miles over her 60-year riding career.
Women just didn't do this in her era, yet there she was, doing it quietly as an unknown, hidden figure. Bessie told me all about it when she was finally ready to sit down and reflect on her untold life. Bessie knew she had a legacy to leave and I was the only person there to capture her memories before it was too late. What an incredible, eye-opening gift that she gave me. Recognizing the importance of preserving her memories, I recorded Bessie on audio tape and and kept notes in my journals of our many other anecdotal conversations. My tapes are the only recordings of Bessie Stringfield in existence. They are copyright-registered in the Library of Congress but they are not available for use by other parties.
I was especially impressed by how Bessie Stringfield earned her spot as a civilian courier, or dispatch rider, on the home-front during the Second World War. I was keen on writing about this phase of her life, since my father was a World War II U.S. Army sergeant and my mother did her part for the war effort on the home-front. I am gratefully aware of the all-hands-on-deck sacrifices made by the entire Greatest Generation, of which Bessie and millions more African American women and men played a major part, too.
In my stories I described how Bessie Stringfield drew upon her talent and skills to train rigorously alongside black men, the only woman in a small unit in the segregated army of the 1940s. I described a technique peculiar to the pre-interstate era: how to weave a makeshift bridge with tree limbs and rope to get a motorcycle across a shallow swamp, though she never had to do this in the line of duty. I wrote stories of how Bessie, with a borrowed military crest on her own 61 cubic-inch Harley, traversed America's rough roads to carry documents and mail in her saddlebags among domestic bases.
And so, I believed there was another facet of Bessie's story that cried out to be told. The world needed to know what a talented and kick-ass biker Bessie Stringfield had been in a milieu that was largely male and white. For instance, in my stories I described how Bessie handled gender bias when she donned a disguise to join the fray of a gritty, all-male flat-track race. I wrote of how Bessie won the heat but was denied the prize when she took off her helmet.
As I mentioned on the home page, my personal nickname for Bessie began as the American Road Queen. In my eyes, that helmet was Bessie Stringfield's crown. My nickname for her evolved into African American Queen of the Road, a word-play on the classic film about two survivors who pushed through death-defying odds. Hence the title of my forthcoming book, African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road.
In the 1950s, Bessie bought a house in a mostly black community in Miami-Dade, Florida, where she would spend the rest of her life. Bessie gave me the rare, personal privilege of visiting her at home. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, a late baby boomer who was in grade school at the start of the modern women's movement in the 1960s. As a college student in the 1970s, I benefited from the efforts of the feisty women who paved the way for me to go against type and pursue my own adventures. So, I viewed Bessie Stringfield in a different light than did her peers in the local African American community where she lived. I saw her as an undiscovered feminist who had predated the modern women's movement. Yet when I met her, Bessie Stringfield was a hidden, unheralded figure, unknown to the larger public and overlooked even by African American and women's historians. I said to myself, That just isn't right.
From the day I met her in 1990, I saw the elder Bessie Stringfield as an avatar of living history standing right in front of me, smiling up and talking to me about her unsung past, but in a very understated way. I knew that Bessie—who was invisible as so many elderly women are—had an amazing tale to tell. But nobody's ears except mine were attuned to what this tiny, unassuming elder had to say. It was the start of a fascinating conversation and a friendship between us that lasted until her passing in the winter of 1993.
On my own motorcycles I, too, rode tens of thousands of miles alone, with nothing but the drone of the wind and the engine inside my full-face helmet. Often I phoned Bessie from spartan motel rooms in the evenings during the first three years of my road trips for the original edition of Hear Me Roar. She enjoyed hearing of my adventures and travails on the road and giving me advice and encouragement. I told her about the amazing, diverse group of women bikers whom I met from across the USA. She enjoyed hearing about the colorful biker rallies I attended and the motorcycle field games at which I excelled. (Except unlike my role model and surrogate Aunt Bessie Stringfield, I had no trophies to show for my feats on two wheels.) Bessie certainly never ran out of stories to tell me from her six decades of riding. We shared our tales with doses of humor and our calls always ended with a prayer for our mutual health and safety. In her frail but spirited voice, Bessie liked to sing her favorite hymn to me, Precious Lord, Take My Hand.
While Bessie Stringfield and I were both bikers who shared the same feelings of exhilaration astride our bikes, many of our road experiences were worlds apart. For starters, we rode during different eras with different societal norms based on gender expectations and skin color, to name just two. Bessie and I traded stories of her experiences as a black Southern woman on a persnickety Harley in a segregated era, and mine as a white woman born in Brooklyn, New York, zooming along the asphalt slabs of America on a high-tech bike. I rode on paved roads and had my pick of motels and diners. I was alone, but not alone in society as Bessie could be when trying to find access even to life's bare necessities in the South.
Unlike Bessie Stringfield, throughout my journeys I was never denied lodging, gas or a restaurant meal. Never did I have to ride my mechanically sound bike on a creepy back road as the only route available to avoid the Klan. Never did I have to swerve around beer cans deliberately tossed in my path by rednecks. And unlike Bessie, I was never stalked by a bigot in a pickup truck who ran me off the road, wrecking my bike and scraping me up. This unnerving incident, which I wrote about in my early stories about Bessie, has struck a chord among African American bikers today. They point out, and rightly so, that our society has not made nearly enough progress toward equal justice in the decades since Bessie was forced off her bike due to racial profiling. Unless you've been living under a rock and are oblivious to current events, we all know how glaringly true that is. Our nation still has a long way to go before the scales will finally be balanced.
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I asked Bessie how she got through the tough times and how she felt about the people who harbored ill intent toward her. Bessie Stringfield did not need to ponder the answer. "I knew Jesus Christ and I know Him now," she said to me. "Those men did not know Jesus Christ. He was always with me. They couldn't see Him, but I felt Him. Oh, I was tested a few times to find the good in some people. In the end, no matter what happens in our lives, it's got to be about love. That is the final conclusion you must always try to attain."
Bessie Stringfield spoke those words to me 30 years ago. In my view, her courage was clearly multi-layered. She showed as much bravery in keeping her faith, capacity to love, and an ability to bond even with unlikely whites when faced with bigotry. From listening to her for three years, I surmised that Bessie's life was not defined by struggle, but rather, how she reacted to each situation. With that in mind, today in 2020 I am reminded of the speeches of the great civil rights leaders such as the late Honorable Rep. John Lewis, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who preached that the path to righteous justice lay in peace and love, not in violence and hate. Former UN Ambassador Andrew Young has said that anger and resentment make a person weaker, not stronger. That was Bessie Stringfield's truth as well. She lived her life by it.
Bessie Stringfield's expansive outlook enabled her to experience an abundance of positive, life-affirming encounters with people of all races in her 60 years of riding around America. Bessie relayed tales to me of how she met many locals who were curious and friendly, and white gas station owners who were impressed at her "nerve," as she put it. Some—even in the South—were so taken with Bessie Stringfield that they filled her tanks for free. I asked Bessie about this many times, to be sure I was hearing her straight, to be sure she wasn't softening the fabric of white society or its racism for my sake. In the colloquial language of her era, Bessie assured me, "All along the way, wherever I rode, the people was [sic] overwhelmed to see a Negro woman ridin' a motorcycle."
Still, Bessie told me that in the South, she had to look over her shoulder. “If you had black skin, you couldn’t get a place to stay,” she said into my tape recorder, adding, “I slept with people’s children a lot because no one would rent me a motel room.” I wrote of how sometimes, Bessie slept on her bike at gas stations, using her rolled-up jacket as a pillow across the handlebars, while resting her feet on the rear fender. Bessie gave me exuberant photos of herself stretched across her bike, along with an array of other vintage pictures snapped at different stages of her life. In the photo on this web page, Bessie Stringfield is vamping for the camera, but alone on the road, finding a place to spend the night was a serious matter. The elder Bessie left me many more photos, some of which have appeared in Hear Me Roar, at the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame museum, and on earlier versions of this website.
I asked her, "Weren't you afraid, being so alone and vulnerable out there?"
"I was not alone," she replied. "When I get on the motorcycle I put the Man Upstairs on the front. I'm very happy on two wheels." Bessie often spoke to me of her riding days in the present tense, even though a chronic heart condition had kept her off motorcycles for several years already.
Today, people have asked me if Bessie Stringfield used the Green Book, the guide for black motorists that began circulating in 1936. It popped back into the nation's consciousness when the movie of the same name hit theaters in 2018. It is a myth that Bessie relied heavily on the Green Book. In reality, Bessie began traveling long before a lot of black-friendly motels were even in business. There weren't always lodgings along her routes. And not all of those black-friendly motels approved of a single, unescorted female biker who was doing something so far afield from what was expected of her. So I can tell you that Bessie Stringfield relied heavily on her faithful unseen companion, the Man Upstairs.
As for my own solo adventures on two wheels, with dogged persistence, advice from Bessie and other seasoned riders, and getting my license via a motorcycle safety course, I grew into an assertive urban biker and a long-distance motorcyclist in my own right. I rode for 18 years on six different motorcycles, covering 35 of the lower 48 states and parts of Ontario, Canada. I had plenty of my own tales to tell Bessie Stringfield, too. She loved shooting the breeze with me about biker stuff, especially since her old cronies from her former Iron Horse Motorcycle Club were all long gone from her life. She told me that some of my riding tales reminded her of own experiences on the road when she was my age. Currently I am in between bikes; the next one may be a motorcycle with a sidecar rig. Since I am an "old soul" at heart, I just love their vintage aura.
Speaking of old souls: A quarter-century after her death, Bessie Stringfield has attained near legendary status among many of her global fans. But Bessie is not a legend and the origin of her story is not shrouded in lore. I can tell you that the stories of Bessie Stringfield did not come from history books; no historians had ever heard of her. The stories of Bessie were not passed down by her biker peers; she had lost touch with them decades earlier and some had already died. The stories did not come from relatives; Bessie had disappeared when she was still a teenager and they never knew what became of her. And most certainly, the stories did not come what pops up in search engines today—recycled articles and secondary web encyclopedia entries with inaccurate referencing. The stories of Bessie Stringfield came from the human connection between two women bikers, one elder, one younger. Bessie and I saw something unique in each other's respective gifts and we came together at just the right time. Let me tell you about it.
When Bessie Stringfield and I struck up our friendship, I was living in an apartment in TriBeCa on the lower west side of Manhattan. By road, we lived almost 1,300 miles apart. My motorcycle was parked in the lot beneath my building, but it was never parked for long, since I took many long-distance rides to do on-location work for my first book, Hear Me Roar. So, Bessie and I first met in the middle of the country, where a museum exhibit on women bikers was on display. Bessie, with her declining health, had flown there; she was no longer able to ride. Even in the pensive surroundings at the museum, people were passing her by. With my inherent love and respect for elders, I was drawn to her. Despite her frailty, Bessie was still very much alive during the first three years of my two-wheeled travels—1990 to early 1993—for Hear Me Roar. I finished writing and photographing the book in 1995; it was published in 1996 by Crown Trade Paperbacks/Random House in New York, and reissued by Whitehorse Press of New Hampshire in 2000.
I wrote first drafts of Bessie's 1993 eulogy for American Iron Magazine and my story “Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue,” plus the other stories in Hear Me Roar, using my low-tech pens on blank legal pads. I scrawled in old-fashioned longhand (cursive) while drinking coffee at Socrates, my favorite Greek diner in TriBeCa. I sat in a window booth at odd quiet hours. Sometimes I’d stop at the diner at the end of a long ride. I parked my Honda Hawk GT650 on the sidewalk within my line of sight outside the window. I have always felt that facing the blank page with longhand initially is an intimate way to begin writing. Since my friendship with Bessie was personal, it was the perfect marriage of words and experience. One guy in my circle of Manhattan riding buddies nicknamed me the Literary Biker Chick and it caught on. (Today, some in my global sisterhood of female riders have shortened it to Lit Biker Chick or Lit Chick.) I once told Bessie that in a sense, we were a pair of literary biker chicks, her part being oral and mine being written. As that notion was new territory for her, she was quite tickled by it.
"I believed the world needed to know what a
talented and kick-ass biker Bessie Stringfield had been
in a milieu that was largely male and white."
My old writing habitat, Socrates Diner, is long gone, but obviously my narratives of Bessie Stringfield live on. All those years ago, I translated Bessie's life from my primary vantage point as a witness, and crafted the elements I had gathered into creative story-lines for publication. So, now you know how, when and where the only authentic stories of Bessie Stringfield were born.
All of this points to why Bessie Stringfield's life story and my stories about Bessie Stringfield's life are inseparable. They are the literary equivalent of conjoined twins, which is why they are not in the public domain. Rather, they are original works that I created from scratch with exclusive material that I gathered, which did not exist anywhere else. Actually, a good analogy is that Bessie is like a protagonist or heroine in a novel, in that Bessie could not exist in the hearts and minds of any audience today if that novel had never been written by its author.
Alongside Bessie Stringfield in the pages of Hear Me Roar, I featured roughly 100 daring women bikers from across the United States, spanning from the turn of the 20th century until the mid-1990s. I wrote of women who began pushing the envelope of gender role-reversal as soon as the motorcycle was invented. Through the decades, some speed-addicted women broke records on the race track while others had extreme, life-changing adventures riding to the far ends of the earth. Since the first edition was published, a lot more has happened among those bikers and among the next generation, hence the forthcoming 25th Anniversary Global Edition of Hear Me Roar, due out in 2021.
All of these female bikers—those from the first edition and those being featured in the coming anniversary edition—are role models of strength and grit. Yet even among the amazing women whom I met and photographed, and even among the early pioneers whom I discovered in my archival research, in my eyes, it was the diminutive, singular Bessie Stringfield who was larger than life.
I said in the beginning that I felt Bessie had an unassuming gravitas. I believed she had earned it, since she had to face more than just gender bias in a male-dominated milieu. On top of everything, Bessie Stringfield had to get past racism aimed personally at her and which was systemic as well. She did it with grace and dignity, never letting others define her or dampen her zest for life. What a woman. What a human. What an inspiration. Most people never get the chance to acknowledge and to thank a legend. I had that rare opportunity with my mentor and surrogate Aunt Bessie Stringfield. This is reflected in my upcoming book, African American Queen of the Road: Bessie Stringfield—A Journey Through Race, Faith, Resilience and the Road.
In Part 3 ahead, I explore how some of Bessie's most avid 21st-century fans feel an emotional connection to her, even though at the same time, Bessie Stringfield remains as essentially unknown as she is admired around the world. This is because I have never released the rest of the story anywhere; that's what the forthcoming book is for. Also in Part 3, I'll share one of the last things Bessie said to me in my precious recordings. And I'll take a look at a controversy that arose a quarter-century after her death.