Bessie Stringfield│Biography, Memoir, African American, Gender
Inside the Story of the Courageous Black Woman Who Rode Across America

Bessie and Her Biographer: A Dual Legacy

© By Ann Ferrar

All content (text and visuals) Copyright © 1990 - 2019, Ann Ferrar. Bessie Stringfield gave express written consent to her life rights to Ann Ferrar in 1990. Ferrar reserves all rights to the story of Bessie Stringfield as expressed. Ferrar is the author-originator, primary source and sole rights-holder of this material from African American Queen of the Road: The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield, A Memoir of Resilience and the Road. This material is based, and expands upon: Ferrar’s earlier copyrighted stories published in print and online; the exclusive oral history of Bessie Stringfield recorded by the author containing anecdotes, dialogue and quotes; exclusive interview transcripts; and other primary materials researched and acquired by the author. Ferrar is the author-originator and sole rights-holder of all defining story elements, including, but not limited to: story-lines (plots), chronicles and perspectives on Ms. Stringfield, her achievements and life events. Ferrar's stories and story elements must not be pirated, adapted, plagiarized or imitated, nor aggregated and disseminated without credit. Ferrar's works and photographs must not be duplicated, scanned, stored, or otherwise exploited. The author's works and properties are protected under multiple Library of Congress Registration Numbers listed at bottom. Please respect the author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield.

 

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Bessie Stringfield and I first met in the summer of 1990 at a niche motorcycle museum near Columbus, Ohio. At age 79 and with more than 60 years of riding under her belt, Bessie was part of an exhibit on women bikers. She was the only African American woman in the group, an unwitting testament to her singularity.

 

I was among the Women in the Wind motorcycle club on that August day as we rumbled into the parking lot of the American Motorcycle Heritage Museum. I was 35 and wore a black T-shirt and leather riding chaps over my jeans. My goggles were pulled up over my head with my wind-blown hair askew. I drifted away from the group and strolled the exhibit with a notebook and pen. I was working on Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (NY: Crown, 1996, 1st ed). This was my first book of narrative non-fiction, in which I would introduce Bessie to a world of readers.

Bessie, age 79, at the motorcycle museum. Background artwork by Paul Jamiol.   <br/>         Photo © by Ann Ferrar. May not be reprinted.
Bessie, age 79, at the motorcycle museum. Background artwork by Paul Jamiol.
Photo © by Ann Ferrar. May not be reprinted.

Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar and may not be reproduced.

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At the museum, I noticed that an elderly African American woman, standing alone, had been watching me. Thin as a wisp and tiny at less than five feet, she wore a uniform of blue and white, her kinky gray ponytail peeking out from the back of her cap. Behind her on the wall was an artist’s drawing of a young, robust black woman leaning on a vintage Harley. The figure wore breeches, a wide kidney belt, a cloth helmet with goggles pulled up over her head—and a mischievous look. The elder and I beamed at each other as I came closer. Peering past her thick glasses into her eyes, I saw the same mischievous look. As if reading my mind, she declared: “Hello, Miss! I’m Bessie Stringfield! That’s me on the wall!”

That first encounter was akin to an electrical jolt. In me, Bessie saw a slice of her adventurous youth, but she also intuited the old soul in me. In Bessie, I saw a piece of living history, a model of courage to be respected. This mutual recognition was the start of a conversation between us that lasted for the next three years until she passed away in 1993. With her trust and confidence in me, it was also the first step in my documentation of the life history of Bessie Stringfield. Bessie gave me the gift of her life story, known more tangibly these days as her life rights. I gave her the gift of remembrance with my writings, so that her legacy could be known and carried on. From the seeds of my early stories, word of Bessie Stringfield was spread exponentially on the Internet and social media.

 

Bessie was a role model in my own life as I made the passage into my prime. As a biker I, too, had sidestepped expectations of my gender. She gave me some candid, plain-spoken advice that I certainly could not have heard from anyone else. She became like my surrogate aunt. Often I called her Aunt Bessie, Aunt B, or My Bessie, and she loved this. 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.

 

Bessie was well equipped to give advice and feedback that made sense to me. On some levels, my adult life path had followed Bessie's more closely than that of my own mother's, curiously enough. My mother was a creature of Italian tradition: family first and Sunday feasts where the women always served the men and always cleaned up. My mother was no dummy but she didn't "get" what I did as a professional writer, not to mention it scared her to death that her daughter became a biker. Bessie "got it" and we shared a wanderlust and a penchant for being tomboys, although naturally we were quite different in other ways.

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Bessie B. Stringfield was steeped in the South, a product of an earlier generation where she was comfortable calling herself a Negro. Bessie was in her forties, settled in Miami and working when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955. That was the year I was born in Brooklyn, New York—the south end, near Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. As a young child, I spent summers with my extended Italian American family at a storied place along the boardwalk called Steeplechase Park. My father and uncles bought season's passes to get us all in. I was too young in the 1950s to wonder why there were never any black kids to play with. By the mid-1960s, I understood why as the Civil Rights struggle played out on the living room TV during the 6 o'clock news. I never saw discriminatory signage on the public Coney Island boardwalk, but the private owners of Steeplechase Park shut it down rather than let black families in. I was saddened and sickened by this. Bearing witness to bigotry so close to home was the single incident that effectively ended my childhood.

 

Bessie Beatrice was born in 1911 and raised in North Carolina. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, Bessie’s roots were mixed: African American, Native American and white. Flaws in census-taking in the early 20th century and other variables led to both parents being listed as "negroes." Nevertheless, my current crop of African American road queens—black women who have given me valuable feedback—inform me that calling Bessie black, or African American today, is acceptable and expected in the context of the “one-drop rule” in which Bessie lived. In her era and with her dark complexion, Bessie identified as a "negro" or "colored" woman throughout her life.

It seemed that everyone who met Bessie fell in love with her. In this photo, given to Ann by Bessie, she is seen with fellow Harley enthusiast Jay Leno. The photo was taken on the same day that Bessie and Ann first met each other<br>at the motorcycle museum, summer 1990.
It seemed that everyone who met Bessie fell in love with her. In this photo, given to Ann by Bessie, she is seen with fellow Harley enthusiast Jay Leno. The photo was taken on the same day that Bessie and Ann first met each other
at the motorcycle museum, summer 1990.

As I grew to know Bessie, I gleaned that she had conflicts in her past and chose to escape from them. Those were the difficult areas for her to talk about and for me to write about (and at her request, I didn't). For most of her adult life, Bessie told everyone she’d been born in Kingston, Jamaica to a white Dutch mother who died and that she was brought to New England by her black father, who abandoned her there to be raised by rich Catholic whites. Hence the adjective Dickensian that came to be used by some today in puzzling over her childhood.

 

Yet Bessie had left her Southern relatives while still a stubborn teenager. “They told me good girls didn’t ride a motorcycle,” Bessie complained. “I wanted a motorcycle and I got it!” In my stories, I described how the girl wrote letters to the Man Upstairs and put them under her pillow. She insisted to me that He taught her how to operate the gears and ride the bike around the neighborhood. Then Bessie left home. She revealed to me that as a young wife, she had been a mother, briefly. Two premature infants and one tiny girl died, crushing Bessie’s spirits and—I believe—her ability to commit to marriage or any semblance of family ties thereafter. Bessie drew lines around herself that could not be crossed by others; thus, the humble beginnings, the lost relatives, and later the six spouses, upon whom she turned her back.

Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar and may not be reproduced.

Yet in the last three years of her life, Bessie enjoyed playing Auntie to me, this New York woman with whom she shared no past. Through the long-distance land lines of old Ma Bell, Miami to Manhattan, Bessie doled out equal parts wisdom and levity. In our many telephone talks, she enjoyed hearing about my life in the city, my progress on Hear Me Roar, and my adventures and travails on the road. She did not use the word "vicarious," but she said that in a sense, she was reliving her own road adventures through hearing about mine. It brought her satisfaction to shoot the breeze with another woman biker who "got it." There had never been another serious female motorcycle rider, white or black, in her life with whom she could share this type of camaraderie. During Bessie's mid-century prime, there was only one white women's biker club with chapters in different parts of the country. They excluded Bessie because she was black.

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I understood implicitly that in Bessie's mind, the Jamaican-New England connection to her early life was an essential—even humanistic—part of her identity. It was embedded in the woman as much as it was in the tapes of her oral history that I recorded. It was part of the elder Bessie Stringfield whom I knew and loved. As such, it was reflected in my earlier written interpretations of her life, which were then spread exponentially by others. That same woman evolved into the magnetic, singular figure whose achievements impacted me and countless others today.

 

In the 1950s, Bessie became a licensed practical nurse, or LPN. She was no stranger to regular jobs—but always with a twist. At different times, Bessie Stringfield was a practical nurse, cook, housekeeper and even a nanny of white children. Except unlike other domestics, Bessie Stringfield showed up on a Harley for work. Bessie could be willful—even wily at times—yet she exuded a natural warmth.

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Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar and may not be reproduced.

Bessie loved shooting the breeze about her biker past and she had a healthy curiosity about my present. She enjoyed hearing about my nights and weekends hanging out in the city’s emergent café biker scene in the early to mid-1990s, where I became a savvy and assertive urban rider. With my big hair blowing from the back of my helmet, I rode my red Honda Hawk GT650 to watering holes like the Sidewalk Café in East Greenwich Village, with its craggy crew of local and international bikers. One guy dubbed me the Literary Biker Chick. I’ve been called a few things; I wish that one had stuck. Grinning, I did point out to Bessie that in a sense, we were a pair of literary biker chicks, her part in our project being oral, mine being written.

 

I visited Bessie a couple of times at her modest home in Opa Locka, which she shared with her two little dogs. At this quiet phase her life, Bessie rarely had visitors to her house, which three decades earlier had echoed with the sounds of biker gatherings. She invited me to peruse her personal biker history, which was displayed around the rooms. She gave me gorgeous vintage photos of herself with her Harleys, along with some personal items and mementos reflecting her Catholic beliefs and some surprising pieces of her life. But while Bessie had been quite the camera vamp in her younger years, she preferred not to be photographed at home in the thin, frail condition of her old age. She wanted to be remembered as the robust woman she had been in her prime. I understood and respected her wishes. The greatest gift I received from Bessie was both intangible and priceless, the gift of her life story.

 

Back in New York, I was sad for Bessie when she confided something so poignant to me over the phone in 1991. She said, “I’ve lived most of my life alone, lookin’ for a family. I found my family in motorcycling.” But her glory days were in the past and her motorcycle cronies were gone. The Man Upstairs was the only man to whom she had ever made a life-long commitment. I wanted to hug her at that moment, but the conversation was via long-distance. We were 1,200 miles apart, she at her home in Miami, me at my day job in Manhattan.

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Two years later, Bessie passed into what she believed would be her greatest glory, to be received by the Man Upstairs. She died in 1993 from chronic heart disease at the age of 82. Against doctor’s orders, Bessie had stayed in the saddle for as long as she could, insisting, "If I don't ride, I won't live long." But Bessie was crushed when her last Harley was badly vandalized in a robbery attempt, though by then she was too frail to ride anyway. She told me, “They say my heart is three times the size it’s supposed to be.” I’ve always felt this was an apt metaphor for a woman with such heart and spirited determination.

 

Today, a new generation of female voyagers see Bessie Stringfield as a role model for freedom and an inspiration for their own long-distance journeys. Bessie’s individuality and bravery as a woman of color resound in today's wave of heroines past and present. Students write me to ask about Bessie for school projects. Seeing this, I know I fulfilled my promise as the steward of Bessie's legacy in ways that neither of us could have predicted. Many readers, users of social media and industry professionalsfrom museums to mediahave sought me out. They express fascination with Bessie and encouragement for the personal approach that I have chosen to expand upon the untold parts of her biography. The diverse, global admiration for Bessie clearly shows that one doesn't have to be a person of color, a woman, or a biker to be inspired by the courage of Bessie Stringfield.

 

Today, all of the many secondary roads on the information highway concerning Bessie lead directly back to my seminal stories. I am the only living primary source for the complete spectrum of her life, from birth to death. My stories include Bessie Stringfield: A Tribute to a Life-Long Harley Girl. In essence it was a eulogy, published as an article in 1993 in American Iron, an international magazine for aficionados of American-made motorcycles.

 

Then I wrote Bessie B. Stringfield: The Color Blue, a biographical profile featured in Hear Me Roar, my 1996 book of narrative non-fiction. I wrote Bessie Stringfield: Inducted 2002 for the website of the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame museum. This story, adapted by me from Hear Me Roar, introduced Bessie to a wide global audience just as Internet use took off in a major way. Longer and shorter versions of this bio have been variously posted on the museum website, where they have been read by thousands ever since. Those who missed the first, most colorful version are out of luck; I abridged the bio last year. Then there was an article for American Motorcyclist magazine. And for many years I rotated stories on my erstwhile Authors Guild website, the former AnnFerrar.com.

 

It has taken a quarter-century of accumulated wisdom and perspective for this author to decide the best way to do justice to Bessie Stringfield's truth on a deeper level. Given her enduring legacy, the tremendous interest in Bessie among fans and professionals, and my personal connection to her, I am doing so in a book that combines two literary forms, biography and memoir. It is impossible to encapsulate the life of Bessie Stringfield in a title, but after many months of mulling, I arrived at African American Queen of the Road: The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield, A Memoir of Resilience and the Road. There is so much to this amazing yet understated woman that resides beneath that title.

 

Bessie Stringfield's life and legacy are indelibly linked to her experiences of race, gender, faith, love and her resilience, as well as wanderlust for the road on her Harleys, and her relationships with a diverse array of people. All of my stories and readings on Bessie have conveyed her expansiveness and humanity, and so will my forthcoming book. Bessie's legacy is reflected in something she said to me when describing her reaction to bigotry that was directed at her on the road: "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."  —Ann Ferrar

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Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar and may not be reproduced.

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