"The Motorcycle Queen of Miami"
We know her as Bessie Stringfield, but there are confusing and conflicting reports. Social Security records list her as Betsy Beatrice White, born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1912. They list her parents as Maggie Cherry and James White. Later in her life, Bessie created a different story saying she was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911. Her death certificated lists her as Betsy Leonora Ellis, born to a black Jamaican father, James Ferguson, and a white Dutch mother, Maria Ellis, in 1911. Most Public records hold she was born Betsy Beatrice White, on March 12, 1912, in Edenton, North Carolina.
In 2018, in an interview with the New York Times, Esther Bennett, Bessie’s niece, said that she lied about her origins. Bessie’s authorized biographer, Ann Ferrar, a journalist and biker, who met Bessie when Bessie was seventy nine years old. Ann relates that Bessie was attempting to hide her early life. The reason wasn’t clear. The story continues finding little Bessie living in Boston, Massachusetts at a very young age, and at five years old, her parents died. An Irish woman adopted and raised her. Her niece, Esther Bennett, disputes this. Why this discrepancy we will never know, while it adds intrigue, it isn’t the focus of her story.
What we know is that when she was sixteen years old, Bessie acquired her first motorcycle, a 1928 Indian Scout, and taught herself to ride. Three years later she began traveling across the United States, making long distance trips through the lower forty-eight states (the first woman to do so on on a bike), Europe, Brazil, and Haiti, all before the age of interstate highways. She funded her travels by performing stunts on her motorcycle at carnivals and shows. Often, accommodations were denied to Bessie because she was Black. That didn’t slow her down, and she slept on oner bike at filling stations. Despite winning multiple races, she was denied prizes by the organizers because of her gender.
When World War II broke out, Bessie served as a civilian courier for the U.S. Army, completing rigorous training. She insisted on riding her own blue Harley-Davidson as she carried documents between domestic army bases. She served four years in the Army, traveling across the U.S. eight times. Bessie faced racism throughout her service, including being knocked down by a white man in a pickup truck in the deep south.. Bessie carved her now path though, despite racial and gender barriers.
The war ended and so did her service. Bessie moved to Miami, Florida sometime in 1950, where she was told by local police that “nigger women are not allowed to ride motorcycles.” She was constantly pulled over and harassed.
She took matters into her own hands and spoke directly to the police captain.. She made an appointment with the police captain. They went to a local park where she proved her ability on a motorcycle, which, of course, was excellent. This earned her the captain’s approval, and she now rode with no harassment from the local police.
Her biographer, Ann Ferrar, says: “She showed as much bravery in keeping her faith, capacity to love, and ability to bond with unlikely. people, even with faced with prejudice…Because of her humanity Bessie’s life was not defined by struggle or rebellion, but rather in how she reacted to each situation and each individual. That was her true superpower.”
Bessie studied and qualified to be a nurse, and in her spare time founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. After noticing her skill, the local press gave her the nickname “The Negro Motorcycle Queen.” That moniker was changed to “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”
Bessie was married and divorced six times. She lost three babies with her first husband. She kept the last name of her third husband, Arthur Stringfield.
In 1990, the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) paid tribute to Bessie in their inaugural “Heroes of Harley-Davidson” exhibition. Bessie Stringfield had owned twenty-seven of their motorcycles.
In 2000, the AMA created the “Bessie Stringfield Memorial Award” to recognize outstanding achievement by a female motorcyclist.
In 2002, Bessie was introduced to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
In 2017, Timeline released a free, online short film about Bessie - “Meet Bessie Stringfield, the Black Motorcycle Queen.”
In 2020, an HBO series Lovecraft Country, includes Bessie Stringfield.
“For me, meeting Bessie Stringfield was like a jolt of electricity, as when you touch something dormant that you realize was statically charged.” Ann Ferrar, Bessies biographer.