Bessie Stringfield

A joyful legacy of breaking boundaries.

Bessie Stringfield
Bessie Stringfield blazed a path across America with her fearless motorcycle riding.

Bessie Stringfield was born around 1911 in Edenton, North Carolina.

At the age of 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 performing motorcycle stunts in carnival shows.

It’s hard to imagine someone more an outsider in 1930s America, but the way Bessie Stringfield lived her life, she played that to her advantage. Stringfield blazed a path across America and into history with her fearless motorcycle riding, her all-black motorcycle club and most of all, a joyful legacy of breaking boundaries.

Due to her skin color, 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 flat track races she entered.

“If you had black skin you couldn’t get a place to stay. I knew the Lord would take care of me and He did. If I found black folks, I’d stay with them. If not, I’d sleep at filling stations on my motorcycle.”

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 Harley-Davidson. During the four years she worked for the Army, she crossed the United States eight times. She regularly encountered racism during this time, reportedly being deliberately knocked down by a white man in a pickup truck while traveling in the South.

In 2000 the American Motorcyclist Association (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 1990 the AMA paid tribute to her in their inaugural “Heroes of Harley-Davidson” exhibition—she owned 27 Harley motorcycles.

In 2017, Timeline released free and online a short film about Bessie Stringfield, Meet Bessie Stringfield, the Black ‘Motorcycle Queen’.

The 2020 HBO series Lovecraft Country features a homage to Bessie Stringfield. The first documentary short about Stringfield, To Myself, With Love: The Bessie Stringfield Story, was released in March 2024.

 

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