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Sun, 02.19.1911

Bessie Stringfield, Motorcyclist born

Bessie Stringfield

 *The birth of Bessie Stringfield is celebrated on this date in 1911. She was a Black motorcyclist and civilian motorcycle dispatch rider for the US Army during World War II.

She was born Bessie Beatrice White to Maggie Cherry and James White, living in Edenton, North Carolina. Later, 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. Other public records verify she was born to Cherry and White in North Carolina.

Esther Bennett, Stringfield's niece, told The New York Times in 2018 that Stringfield had lied about her origins. Ann Ferrar, the 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.

In a 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 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.

During this time, she earned money from motorcycle stunts in carnival shows. Because she was Black, 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 the flat track races she entered.

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 inches Harley-Davidson. She crossed the United States eight times during the four years she worked for the Army. She regularly encountered Jim Crow segregation during this time, reportedly being deliberately knocked down by a white man 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. 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 had no more trouble with the police.

She qualified as a nurse there and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. Her skill and antics at motorcycle shows gained the attention of the local press, leading to the nickname "The Negro Motorcycle Queen." This nickname later changed to "The Motorcycle Queen of Miami," a moniker she carried for the remainder of her life. She was married and divorced six times, losing three babies with her first husband. She kept the last name of her third husband, Arthur Stringfield, and she was also Catholic.

Stringfield, the first Black woman to ride across the United States solo, died on February 16, 1993, from a heart condition, having kept riding right up until her death. 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. In 1990, the AMA paid tribute to her in their inaugural "Heroes of Harley-Davidson" exhibition; she owned 27 of their motorcycles. 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.

In 2017, Timeline released a free short film about Bessie Stringfield, "Meet Bessie Stringfield, the Black ‘Motorcycle Queen." In 2018, The New York Times published her obituary. The 2020 HBO series Lovecraft Country featured a homage to Bessie Stringfield.

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