Bessie Stringfield

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Bessie B. Stringfield
Bessie Stringfield.jpg
Born
Bessie Beatrice White

February or March 1911, or March 1912[1]
DiedFebruary 16, 1993[2] (age 81 or 82)
NationalityUS
Other namesBetsy Leonora Ellis, "The Motorcycle Queen of Miami"[1]
OccupationNurse, housekeeper
Known forPioneer African-American female motorcyclist
Home townEdenton, North Carolina
Parent(s)Maggie Cherry, James White[1]
RelativesMary Louise White Skinner (sister), Esther Bennett (niece), Robert Irving Skinner (nephew), David Skinner (nephew)[1]

Bessie Stringfield (1911 or 1912 – February 16, 1993), "The Motorcycle Queen of Miami", was the first African-American woman to ride across the United States solo, and was one of the few civilian motorcycle despatch riders for the US Army during World War II.[1][3] Credited with breaking down barriers for both women and Jamaican-American motorcyclists,[4][5] Stringfield was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.[6] The award bestowed by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) for "Superior Achievement by a Female Motorcyclist" is named in her honor.

Early life[edit]

Stringfield was born Bessie Beatrice White to African-Americans Maggie Cherry and James White, living in Edenton, North Carolina.[1] In later years, she created a different version of her life, saying she was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911 to a black Jamaican father and a white Dutch mother, James Ferguson and Maria Ellis.[1][7] Her birth date has been publicized as February 1911, with the birth name Betsy Leonora Ellis, though her death certificate says she was born on March 1911, in Kingston, with parents names as James Richard White and M. Cherry, but a Social Security record has her birth date as March 1912.[1] Other public records verify she was born to Cherry and White in North Carolina.[1] Esther Bennett, Stringfield's niece, told The New York Times in 2018 that Stringfield had lied about her origins.[1] Ann Ferrar, author of Stringfield's authorized biography, said she helped perpetuate some of the stories Stringfield had made up about her life because Stringfield had asked Ferrar "to tell her truth as her friend," and that Stringfield "running from her early past" did not diminish her achievements or inspirational influence on younger generations.[1]

In the popular account of Stringfield's life, her family migrated to Boston when she was still young. Her parents died when Stringfield was five and she was adopted and raised by an Irish woman. At the age of 16 Stringfield taught herself to ride her first motorcycle, a 1928 Indian Scout. In 1930, at the age of 19, she commenced traveling across the United States. She made seven more long-distance trips in the US, and eventually rode through the 48 lower states, Europe, Brazil and Haiti.[8][6] During this time, she earned money from performing motorcycle stunts in carnival shows.[6] Due to her skin color, Stringfield was often denied accommodation while traveling, so she would sleep on her motorcycle at filling stations. Due to her sex, she was refused prizes in flat track races she entered.[9]

World War II and later life[edit]

During World War II Stringfield served as a civilian courier for the US Army, carrying documents between domestic army bases. She completed the rigorous training and rode her own blue 61 cubic inch Harley-Davidson.[6] During the four years she worked for the Army, she crossed the United States eight times. She regularly encountered racism during this time, reportedly being deliberately knocked down by a white male in a pickup truck while traveling in the South.

In the 1950s Stringfield moved to Miami, Florida, where at first she was told "nigger women are not allowed to ride motorcycles" by the local police.[10] After repeatedly being pulled over and harassed by officers, she visited the police captain. They went to a nearby park to prove her riding abilities. She gained the captain's approval to ride and did not have any more trouble with the police.[11]

She qualified as a nurse there and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club.[8] Her skill and antics at motorcycle shows gained the attention of the local press, leading to the nickname of "The Negro Motorcycle Queen". This nickname later changed to "The Motorcycle Queen of Miami", a moniker she carried for the remainder of her life.

Stringfield died in 1993 at the age of 82 from a heart condition, having kept riding right up until the time of her death.[8] Robert Scott Thomas, whose family had employed Stringfield as a housekeeper when Thomas was a child, was named executor and beneficiary of Stringfield's estate, unaware of any relatives at the time.[1]

Legacy[edit]

In 2000 the AMA created the "Bessie Stringfield Memorial Award" to recognize outstanding achievement by a female motorcyclist. Stringfield was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.[6] In 1990 the AMA paid tribute to her in their inaugural "Heroes of Harley-Davidson" exhibition[12] she having owned 27 of their motorcycles.[13]

In 2017 Timeline released free and online a short film about Bessie Stringfield, "Meet Bessie Stringfield, the Black ‘Motorcycle Queen’"[14]

In 2018 The New York Times published a belated obituary for her.[15]

Personal life[edit]

She married and divorced six times, losing three babies with her first husband. She ended up keeping the last name of her third husband, Arthur Stringfield, since she had made it famous.[6]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Stewart, Nikita (April 4, 2018), "Overlooked No More: Bessie B. Stringfield, the 'Motorcycle Queen of Miami", The New York Times
  2. ^ a b "Motorcycling Pioneer Bessie Stringfield passes away", American Motorcyclist, p. 67, May 1993
  3. ^ "AMA Honors Margaret Wilson with Bessie Stringfield Award", Motorcycle Cruiser, February 24, 2009
  4. ^ Ferrar, Ann (June 11, 1996), Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (1st ed.), Three Rivers Press, Crown Publishing Group, ISBN 0517881721
  5. ^ Ferrar, Ann (2000), Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (2nd ed.), Whitehorse Press, ISBN 1884313248
  6. ^ a b c d e f Bessie Stringfield at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame
  7. ^ Stevenson, Jed (July 28, 1996). "Hear Me Roar, a Woman's Symphony on the Road". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  8. ^ a b c Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Missy Scott. ABC-CLIO, August 30, 2008
  9. ^ Bill Kresnak, Motorcycling For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons, July 28, 2008.
  10. ^ "Sisters of the Road", American Motorcyclist, p. 31, June 1996
  11. ^ Mullins, Sasha (January 1, 2003). Bikerlady: Living & Riding Free!. Citadel Press. ISBN 9780806525198.
  12. ^ "Bessie Stringfield - harley-davidson.com".
  13. ^ Ernestine G. Miller, Making Her Mark: Firsts and Milestones in Women's Sports, McGraw-Hill Professional, May 29, 2002.
  14. ^ "Meet Bessie Stringfield, the Black 'Motorcycle Queen'". 4 April 2018 – via NYTimes.com.
  15. ^ "Overlooked No More: Bessie B. Stringfield, the 'Motorcycle Queen of Miami'". 7 March 2017 – via timeline.com.