To ride a motorcycle across the United States in the 1930s meant harsh riding over unforgiving dirt roads, careful planning for fuel and food, no way of communicating for help other than waving down a fellow vehicle that might not come along for days, or hiking out, possibly desperate for water. Not only were there no callboxes lining the highway, or Taco Bell signs glowing in the distance, there were no interstate highways at all. Sure, there were maps, but there was no way to know what was over the next hill if you hadn’t been there before.
For a man to load up some panniers, fire up a bike, and hit the road in 1930 was a cross country adventure with a real element of danger. For a woman, multiply that a few times over, plus add in strange local laws about whether women could ride motorcycles at all, or what they could wear while doing it. For a Black woman to do this in 1930 is of an order of magnitude more risky, more dangerous, and ten orders of magnitude more badass.
Bessie Stringfield was more than up for it.
Born, most likely, in North Carolina in 1911, Stringfield was relocated to Boston with her family as a child. Some accounts suggest she was born in Jamaica, but her early years are clouded with myth. Stringfield was gifted her first motorcycle as a teenager, by either her adopted mother, or a family friend, the records are a little unclear. What we do know is that it was a 1928 Indian Scout model, and it completely changed her life. She taught herself to ride it, then, at 19 years of age, a restless Stringfield unfolded a map of the U.S., marveling at the possibilities for a woman with a motorcycle and the courage to roam. Not sure of exactly where she wanted to head she flipped a penny onto the map, and followed wherever that dusty hunk of copper led.
She blasted off from somewhere on the East Coast and thundered across the country. She eventually made it across the continent, the first Black woman to ride a motorcycle nationwide, solo. Infected with wanderlust, Stringfield crossed the country at least 8 times over the next few decades.
Stringfield earned money by riding in motorcycle shows and carnivals in towns all over the country. She’d often ride the infamous Walls of Death, a wooden bowl that she’d zoom around within, like the ball in a roulette wheel, riding with her head parallel to the ground, dazed onlookers peering down from above or the side. Or she’d compete against male riders in races, often disguised as a man so that she’d be allowed to compete. If she won, the loser could save at least a little face.
Motels in the 1930s typically didn’t allow Black customers in the door, especially Black women on their own riding motorcycles, so Stringfield often slept on her bike at filling stations. An extraordinary act of courage in the pre-war years; In the South, lynchings were still legal in many places. She faced at least one instance of violence when a white pickup driver purposely ran her off the road, though it seems Stringfield was largely left alone. Her confidence and self-assuredness seemed to buoy her, keep her above the fray of petty violence. A Black woman by herself, thundering into town astride a massive Harley, voluminous curls spilling out from beneath a helmet, this wowed people. Maybe made her seem larger than life, a surreal vision beyond being screwed with. Stringfield, for her part, credited god.
In the 1940s, Stringfield continued crossing the nation by motorcycle, this time as a courier for the U.S. Army during WW2. She’d ferry orders and documents from base to base, often over tremendous distances. She was the only woman motorcycle courier in her division. With an Army insignia festooned to the front of her bike, and in an Army uniform, she’d zoom from state to state, this time, a bit less concerned about riff raff, if she ever was.
After the war, Stringfield settled down in Miami and bought a house. Almost immediately, she butted heads with local police who weren’t pleased with the idea of a Black woman riding a motorcycle alone around their city. Stringfield told the story in an issue of American Motorcyclist many years later. When the police made clear they weren’t about to tolerate her having a motorcycle license, Stringfield approached the police captain of her local precinct, and, not knowing her story, he ended up challenging her to perform a series of stunts in a park to prove she could handle a bike. Stunts that he assumed would be far too difficult for even a practiced rider. Stringfield handled them easily, and the cops never again gave her trouble.
“From that day on, I didn’t have any trouble from the police, and I got my license too,” she said.
Over the next few decades, Stringfield founded the Iron Horse motorcycle club in Miami. She rode a series of Harleys well into her 70s (she eventually owned more than two dozens Harley Davidsons, the only brand for her after that first Indian she was gifted), to her job as a nurse, and regularly to church. She married and divorced more often than many people buy cars, that streak of adventurousness running through all aspects of her life. She taught women, men, and kids to ride motorcycles, inspired countless others she never met to hit the open road.
Stringfield died in 1993 of heart problems. She rode until her death, defying doctor’s orders to get off the bike when her heart issues presented themselves.
“I told [my doctor] if I don’t ride, I won’t live long. And so I never did quit.”
Posthumously, Stringfield was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. In the year 2000, the American Motorcycle Association created the Bessie Stringfield Memorial Award, given annually to outstanding women motorcyclists.
For more, pick up a copy of Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road, by Ann Ferrar.
Words by Justin Housman