Bessie Stringfield, the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami”, broke barriers for women and African-American cyclists. Throughout her life she completed eight solo cross-country tours and served as a U.S. Army motorcycle dispatch rider. In 2002, she was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Born in Jamaica in 1911, she moved to Boston with her family and was orphaned by the age of five. Bessie never mentioned her adoptive mother’s name in interviews, but she gave Bessie her first motorcycle at age 16, a 1928 Indian Scout. Her adopted mother was a devout Irish Catholic and believed giving Bessie a motorcycle was God’s will. Bessie went on to say, “When I was in high school I wanted a motorcycle, and even though good girls didn’t ride motorcycles, I got one.”
Known as “BB” amongst friends, she took eight solo cross country trips in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as rides into Haiti, Europe, and South America. Tossing a coin on a map would determine her next destination, and she would pick up gigs at carnival shows as a hill climber and stunt racer to make money on the road. It wasn’t easy for Bessie to find a place to stay overnight when she drove through a racially tense and segregated South. She discussed the challenge in Ann Ferrar’s book, Hear me Roar.
“If you had black skin, you couldn’t get a place to stay. I knew the Lord would take care of me, and He did. If I found black folks, I’d stay with them. If not, I’d sleep at filling stations on my motorcycle.”
In World War II, Bessie worked on courier duty as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider for the Army. She completed intense training while serving, and learned such skills as weaving a makeshift bridge out of rope, and using tree limbs to cross swamps.
In the 1950s, Bessie bought a house in a Miami suburb, became a licensed practical nurse, and formed the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. By this time she had been married and divorced six different times. While living there, she gained the lifelong moniker “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” In 1990, the AMA paid tribute to Bessie with the “Heroes of Harley Davidson” exhibit. Throughout her life, she owned 27 Harleys and claimed them to be “the only motorcycle ever made.” Bessie was still riding in 1993, when, at 82, her big, well-used heart beat its last.
Photos courtesy of the AMA Motorcycle Museum