Bessie Stringfield: World War II Veteran and Record Setter
In light of the history of women bikers, we’d like to take the time to acknowledge someone who left a strong imprint on the history of the riding culture in America. She went by the name of Bessie Stringfield, also called the "motorcycle queen of Miami," and she was one badass gal. Imagine an African American woman riding around on a motorcycle during the height of the '30s, '40s, and '50s (not something that was necessarily smiled upon) and being able to ride circles around most of her peers. Not a super common thing around that time, right?
Well, that’s why she made history and was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association.
Bessie Stringfield was born in 1911 in a small area of Jamaica. When she was very young, her parents decided to move to America for a happier and more promising future. They settled down in Boston to start their new life, but it was short-lived, as both her parents ended up passing away when she was only five-years-old.
A strong Irish woman quickly adopted her, and once Bessie hit sixteen, she found her interest and passion for motorcycles. She bought her first bike at that age-a 1928 Indian Scout-and taught herself how to ride. Now, while we may not advocate for self-taught riders in today’s society, Bessie had no possible way of ever being taught how to ride. This was because of her skin color and gender, so she didn’t exactly have a supportive team cheering her on along the way.
At the age of nineteen, once she felt like a confident rider, she was the first African American woman to ride across the United States on a solo trip. This was, and still is, seen as a huge deal because during that time it wasn’t commonplace for anyone to make those types of trips on a bike. She would make seven more trips across the United States, and travel on her motorcycle across Brazil, Europe, and Haiti. She had such a love and devotion to riding, so much so that riding became her primary source of income. While traveling, as a means of making money, she would perform tricks on her motorcycle at carnival shows and other events.
Because of Bessie’s skin color and choice to partake in a riding culture that was foreign to many people during that time, she was often denied any lodging while she was traveling. If she was not able to find a place willing to take her in, she would sleep on her motorcycle at gas stations. That was obviously not the safest method, but in case it wasn’t already evident from her accomplishments, Bessie was one hell of a girl.
When World War II hit, Stringfield served in the war as a civilian courier for the Army. It was her job to ride her motorcycle and carry important paperwork between different army bases. She completed the training necessary and passed with flying colors, which encouraged her to purchase a blue, 61 cubic inch Harley Davidson. Yep, in case you couldn’t appreciate and respect Bessie enough, she was a proud Harley owner. When she was serving in the army, her job required her to drive across the U.S eight separate times.
In the 1950’s, Bessie moved down to Miami, Florida, and that’s where problems began. The police officers in the area would continuously pull over Bessie when they saw her riding around on her motorcycle, as they did not believe that African American women (or women in general) should be allowed to ride. After being pulled over multiple times, Bessie decided to take matters into her own hands and meet with the chief of police to showcase her skills and worth as a rider. The chief approved of her skills and confidence, and she was never pulled over again.
Bessie worked as a nurse in Miami and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle club. The press highly favored her in the area, and were responsible for giving her the well-known nickname. While in Miami, she entered a speed race and won, but was refused the prize once she took her helmet off and they realized she wasn’t a man. In 1990, the AMA paid tribute to her in their "Heroes of Harley" exhibition. She was overjoyed with their decision, as Bessie was an avid Harley lover who owned 27 of them during her lifetime. She has been quoted as saying Harleys are “the only motorcycle ever made.”
In 2002, Bessie was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, but she had sadly already passed from a heart condition years prior, in 1993. The doctor had told her that she needed to stop riding. Her response was, “I told him if I don’t ride, I won’t live long.” She was that passionate about riding. She lived a long, exciting, and fulfilling life as a proud rider and motorcycle enthusiast.
She had been the first African American woman to travel on a bike across the country, she served proudly during the war, she loved Harleys just as much as everyone else, and her confidence and personality were recognized by multiple awards. We’re proud of what Bessie was able to accomplish, as she opened the doors for female riders everywhere. Everyone should be able to experience the freedom and release that comes with riding, and her presence allowed women to feel like riding was a possibility.
Shortly before Bessie passed away, she was asked about her life. Her only reply was, “What I did was fun, and I loved it.” Bessie was full of grit and courage, much like most riders, and she will forever remain an imprint in motorcycle history.
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