Bessie Stringfield, the Motorcycle Queen of Miami, was a pioneering motorcyclist and the first black woman to ride solo across the United States. Despite the dangers, horrendous racism and various obstacles she encountered, she achieved great success and celebrity, and paved the way for other black women riders.
She was born Betsy Ellis in 1911 in Kingston, Jamaica. When she was a toddler, the family moved to America, settling in Boston. Tragically, both her parents died of smallpox when Bessie was just five years old. She was then raised by a devout Roman Catholic Irish woman whose identity she never revealed.
Bessie had hankered after a motorcycle throughout high school and when she turned sixteen years old, her adoptive mother bought her an Indian Scout. Despite having no previous experience of operating a motorcycle, Bessie clearly had a natural talent and soon became an extremely skilful rider.
Three years later, aged just nineteen, Bessie embarked on what was to be the first of eight solo journeys across the USA during the 1930s and 1940s. Bessie criss-crossed the country, earning a living by performing as a carnival stunt-rider and hill-racer in the towns at which stopped en route. She also travelled around Haiti, Europe and South America, often deciding on her next destination by tossing a coin over a map. Her rarity as a black woman motorcycle daredevil, and her extreme skill meant that Bessie soon became something of a celebrity.
Bessie’s motorcycle journeys presented innumerable challenges; not just the dangerous dirt roads and harsh conditions, but prevailing racist attitudes and anti-black legislation made for frequently treacherous situations. It was often difficult for her to find accommodation as many hotels and boarding houses refused to take non-white guests so she would have to stop at gas stations and sleep on her motorbike.
On the road, Bessie encountered racist attacks and abuse, especially in America’s segregated southern states where racially motivated violence was a constant danger. On one occasion, a white male truck driver deliberately ran her off the highway, knocking her into a ditch. These episodes only strengthened Bessie’s resilience and determination. Downplaying her bravery over such experiences she simply said: “I had my ups and downs”.
During the Second World War, Bessie worked for the US Army as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider. She underwent rigorous military training and was the only woman in her unit. Sporting a military crest on the front of her Harley Davison, Bessie transported vital documents between domestic military bases for four years, crossing the USA on a number of occasions.
Somewhere between her stunt-riding, carnival performances, cross-country adventures and serving her country, Bessie found the time to marry and divorce no less than six times. Her third husband, Arthur Stringfield, asked that she keep his surname after their divorce as she had made it so famous.
During the 1950s, Bessie moved to Miami where she trained and worked as a nurse. She founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club and still took part in motorbike events and races. She famously won a flat-track race disguised as a man, but revealed her true identity when she removed her helmet at the finish line and was consequently refused the prize money. Another incident saw her riding her Harley whilst standing upright on its saddle. Her stunts drew the attention of the local press and she got her title: The Motorcycle Queen of Miami.
Bessie was frequently stopped by local police officers who believed that black women had no business to be riding around the state on a motorcycle. Of course, she refused to capitulate and, instead, she arranged a meeting with the Chief of Police at which she demonstrated her exceptional skills on a motorcycle. The Miami police never bothered her again.
As she grew older, Bessie suffered from serious health problems caused by an enlarged heart, but she never let this prevent her from living the way she chose. She continued riding motorbikes right up until her death in 1993 at the age of 82.
The American Motorcyclist Association opened the first Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Ohio in 1990 and honoured Bessie in its inaugural exhibit. Ten years later, it created the Bessie Stringfield Award (given for superior achievement by a woman motorcyclist) in her memory. In 2002, Bessie was posthumously inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and in recent years hundreds of women have ridden in the Bessie Stringfield Female-Only Motorcycle Ride.
Eighty years after she first got on a motorcycle, those for whom Bessie paved the way are still celebrating her outstanding achievements, courageous spirit and fearless attitude. A fitting tribute to such a true pioneer.