In 1990, while doing research for her book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road, journalist Ann Ferrar visited the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Heritage Museum in Ohio to view an exhibit on early twentieth century female motorcyclists. There, she noticed a thin, elderly woman wearing a cap and uniform. This was her introduction to Bessie Stringfield, who in 1930 became the first African-American woman to make a solo motorcycle trip across the United States. Over three years of visits and phone calls, Stringfield shared her oral history with Ferrar, and Ferrar subsequently shared it with the world.
It begins like a Dickens tale. Born in 1911 as Betsy Ellis in Kingston, Jamaica, Stringfield and her family emigrated to Boston soon after Bessie’s birth. Orphaned at the age of five, she was adopted by an Irish woman who instilled in her a deep Catholic faith. At 16, she received a 1928 Indian Scout as a gift from her adoptive mother, for which Bessie gave thanks to “the man upstairs.” A few years later she decided to set off on her first trip across America.
It’s difficult to imagine what sort of animosity an unaccompanied woman traversing the country in that era may have faced, let alone a black woman traveling alone through Jim Crow America. Stringfield not only had to contend with the social dynamics of the time — she would sleep in the homes of welcoming black families or in gas station lots, because most hotels wouldn’t rent to her — but also with the technical limitations of her equipment and the road infrastructure of the day.
In a time well before the completion of the interstate highway system, Stringfield would throw a penny on a map and go wherever it landed. To earn money during her travels she performed stunts at carnivals and competed in flat-track races, although organizers denied her prize money when they found out she was a woman. Ultimately, Stringfield made eight cross-country rides and visited all of the lower 48 states.
There are all types of rugged, and not all of them are physical. It takes tough mental grit — foresight, planning, and craftiness — to do what Bessie did in the Jim Crow era and get away with it.
After meeting Ferrar at the AMA Heritage Museum, Stringfield grew close to the New York-based writer. The two remained dear friends until 1993, when Stringfield passed away from a heart condition. Before her death, Stringfield asked Ferrar to keep her memory alive. “Bessie had no children and no other heirs, and she certainly didn’t know any writers who could tell her story — much less a writer who was also a biker,” says Ferrar, who finished her book in 1996. Six years later, the AMA inducted Stringfield into its Hall of Fame.
In recent years the legend of Bessie Stringfield has grown thanks to the internet, allowing a new generation to become familiar with her story. “As often happens when information spreads exponentially, errors and myths creep in, even among well-meaning admirers and fans,” says Ferrar. “Over the years I have quietly watched this happen, with mixed feelings.” Stringfield has become the embodiment of a rough-and-rugged free spirit, thumbing her nose at convention, but Ferrar says, “There are all types of rugged, and not all of them are physical. It takes tough mental grit — foresight, planning, and craftiness — to do what Bessie did in the Jim Crow era and get away with it.”
“Bessie was not a standard-bearer for the organized civil rights movement or for women in general,” Ferrar continues. “She couldn’t be, as she was ahead of both of those movements. I called her ‘a one-woman civil rights movement,’ and that phrase has often been repeated, but what I meant was, Bessie let nothing stand in her way despite racial or gender prejudice. She was an outstanding and brave individual.” Regardless of intent, Stringfield’s actions have rippled through time, and her legacy continues to influence and inspire people like Porsche Taylor, a Los Angeles-based graphic designer.
In 2011, Taylor read one of Ferrar’s stories about Bessie Stringfield and wondered why there weren’t more stories about black women on motorcycles. She decided she would have to be the one to tell them, establishing Black Girls Ride, a publication that celebrates women of color in the motorcycle scene. She has since become a modern-day Bessie Stringfield of sorts, crossing the U.S. eight times herself.
We ask Taylor if she ever imagines riding the road like Stringfield did. “I won’t ever presume to live life in that time,” she says. “There’s just no way to separate the technological struggles, the racial and the gender struggles that she dealt with. There is no way that I will ever have to sit in that seat.” Asked why she thinks Stringfield’s story still resonates, she explains, “She’s inspirational on so many levels. You can embody that fearlessness that she had, and I think that’s what a lot of people envision for themselves. It’s the American dream; regardless of race, creed, or color, if you hear Bessie’s story, you’re inspired by it.”
There are two parts to creating a legend: the doing of the deed and the telling of the tale. Ferrar is in the process of writing a full-length biography of Stringfield, drawing on the oral history she recorded during their three-year friendship, so even more people are likely to be inspired by Stringfield’s example. The stories that we choose to tell and re-tell are manifestations of our collective hopes and fears, and the story of Bessie Stringfield is one that reminds us that we can overcome obstacles and chase what we want, if we only have the courage to try.
Learn more about Ferrar’s Bessie Stringfield biography below.Bessie Stringfield Book