November 18, 2021

Bessie Stringfield: The Motorcycle Queen of Miami

Bessie Stringfield

Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993), the "Motorcycle Queen of Miami," was the first Black woman motorcyclist to ride cross-country alone. At the age of 19! The quirky details of her life are so numerous they start to bottleneck.

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When first learning about Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993), the "Motorcycle Queen of Miami," the quirky details of her life are so numerous they start to bottleneck. It becomes impossible to tell which part, exactly, is most impressive.

It could it be that Bessie was the first Black woman motorcyclist (though, at age 19, technically still a teenager) to ride cross-country alone, or that she did it decades before the end of segregation. It could be that sometimes she used her motorcycle as a bed when she couldn't locate a place to sleep during her trips. It could be that despite her fervent Catholicism, she was married and divorced 6 times (Stringfield was her third husband’s name). The list really does go on. 

Maybe they are all the most impressive facts.

Bessie Stringfield

Bessie Stringfield, a figure who became known in her lifetime primarily to fellow motorcycle enthusiasts, has more recently become a contemporary folk hero to the wider world as the stories of her bad-assery continue to live on. Born in 1911 (yes, more than a whole century ago, for those keeping track), Bessie was gifted her first motorcycle, an Indian Scout, at age 16 (every bike after that—all 36 of them—was a Harley Davidson). 

Essentially a biking phenom, she taught herself to ride and later at 19 made it all the way rode across the country. The year of her first cross-country ride, 1930, highways and motorcycles were still new concepts to American society, and Jim Crow laws were very much in effect. Over the years, she would complete eight rides altogether.

A supremely private person, Bessie was born into a Jamaican-American family and grew up on the East Coast of the United States. As an adult, well into her years of riding, she settled down in Miami, FL. There, she founded a motorcycle club in which she was the only female member (the rest were mostly working class Black men). One rumor insists that Bessie ran the club disguised as a man for years until she was found out.

As with most folk heroes, the stories about Stringfield are vivid and charming. Bessie claimed to have planned her trips by dropping a penny onto a map of the United States and riding to the location. As many hotels and other places to stay were whites-only during that time, she often stayed with Black families and otherwise relied on her own resourcefulness—and, importantly for Bessie, her faith—to survive and keep riding.

Bessie Stringfield

During her trips, when Bessie couldn’t find a place to sleep, she pulled the aforementioned power move of sleeping on top of her bike in gas stations, her body arranged strategically across its parts. Folks at the time had strong reactions to her showing up in their towns and just existing in a way that was unexpected for all women at the time. It boiled down to her being alone and on a motorcycle, in combination with who she was and what she looked like.

This also seems like a good time to mention the woman was no taller than 5 feet.

There are also oft-cited stories of Bessie showing up to carnivals and motorcycle rallies and doing elaborate motorcycle tricks for extra cash. One signature anecdote has her winning a race and being denied the prize after taking off her helmet. The stories are lovingly documented by those who knew and admired her, they are undeniable, and they almost tell themselves.

Less talked about, though, are the day jobs she held over her life, including a stint as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider during World War II, and a much longer 20-year position as a nurse. Bessie's many Harleys were her mode of transport to and from work as well as escape, of taking to the road, her happy place.

The most common questions surrounding the larger-than-life Bessie are, How did she do that? At that time? In those places? Her answers were consistent: she was a person of notably unwavering faith and had been since childhood. She settled into Catholicism at some point, but her faith seemed very specific and personal to her, something she held close wherever she went on her bike.

As a matter of fact, she saw herself not as riding alone but with "The Man Upstairs," a term of endearment she was known to use frequently. Personal accounts from loved ones describe someone who had a rare kind of mental and emotional levity, of grit, along with patience, open-mindedness, and bravery.

To recap: Bessie rode thousands of miles before roads, the Green Book, desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, cell phones, and 911 (as in, the phone number).

Bessie rode until she physically couldn't any longer, and a heart condition kept her off the road in her later years. She passed away in 1993, and nine years later was awarded a spot in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. The old black-and-white photos that accompany these tales are, quite frankly, charming as hell and are worth a visit (in-person or virtually). In some of them, she poses in crisp white collars and an imposing protective belt. She looks pleased whether she’s smiling or not.

Memories of Bessie, in the form of these photos, along with written accounts and recorded conversations on her life, travels, and spirituality, have been curated by her biographer and friend, Ann Ferrar and resulted in a book entitled Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (more details on this at bessiestringfieldbook.com).

Although she has been honored by many since her passing, the most elaborate effort might be the Bessie Stringfield All Female Ride, a group of women bikers who began a series of their own cross-country rides in 2014 to commemorate Bessie's historic rides so many decades prior. The eighth and final ride took place June 2021 and covered the 48 contiguous U.S. states in 10 days. The group still exists to connect and support women bikers from all over. 

Their motto?

We pound for Bessie!



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