Queen of the Road
The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield
A Memoir of Race, Friendship,
Resilience and the Road
© By Ann Ferrar
All content (text and photos) on this website Copyright © 1990 - 2018, Ann Ferrar. Ann Ferrar is the creator/originator, primary source and sole rights-holder of this material, and she reserves all rights to her work. This website provides a glimpse into the only authorized biography - book of Miami's black motorcycle queen, Bessie Stringfield, who rose above racial & gender barriers on her Harleys. This content is based on the author's collected writings, including: her books My African American Queen of the Road, The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me (pub date TBA) and Hear Me Roar (NY: Crown, 1996); plus her stories for the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum (2002-present). Ann Ferrar's print books and web bios of Ms. Stringfield are not in the public domain. The author’s stories, storylines and essential content must not be pirated, imitated, adapted to other media, duplicated, repackaged, scanned, stored, or otherwise plagiarized by other parties in any media. For more on the author's intellectual property, copyright rules & restrictions, see details in menu pop-up box. Thank you for respecting the rights of this author and the wishes of Bessie Stringfield.
Writing Bessie's Truth: Behind the Authorized Biography of a Daring Motorcycle Queen
Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) was an extraordinary woman of color and a motorcycling pioneer who rose above racial and gender barriers in the pre-Civil Rights era. She was also my mentor and friend. Bessie toured the USA eight times on her vintage Harleys and was a World War II courier. With courage and faith, she rode alone on primitive roads despite the risks to lone female travelers and the dangers to African Americans.
In response to readers of my earlier stories about Bessie and her many global fans on social media, this website provides a glimpse into the only authorized biography of Bessie Stringfield, the daring motorcycle queen who rose above racial and gender barriers on her Harleys.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Bessie had two "royal" monikers among locals around town. Depending on who was talking, she was the Negro Motorcycle Queen and later the Motorcycle Queen of Miami. Today, Bessie Stringfield has become an icon to a new generation of fans who are inspired by her bravery against the odds. There is a viral video on Facebook, plus huge group motorcycle rides and achievement awards that honor her legacy. Yet the real, flesh-and-blood Bessie Stringfield behind the icon is largely unknown. But not to me.
That's because with Bessie’s blessing and encouragement, I recorded her oral history on a series of exclusive audio tapes during the last three years of her life, becoming the only author—the only person—to record the voice and the stories of Bessie Stringfield as told by the woman herself.
Bessie gave me the gift of her life story and asked me to keep it alive. It has been my privilege to keep that promise as a labor of love. Over the years, my stories about Bessie have been the seed for hundreds of search-engine hits, the viral video, and more.
Bessie is still a big inspiration to me and now, she is the heroine of my new biography and memoir in progress. For the first time, I am shining light on Bessie from a new and more personal perspective, that of two different women—one elder, one younger—who shared an unusual kinship.
Bessie Stringfield and I were an unlikely pair of "biker chicks." Our friendship during her last three twilight years transcended racial, regional and generational differences. We traded stories of her being a Southern black woman riding unpaved roads in an earlier, segregated era, and mine as a white woman from New York City zooming along the asphalt slabs of America as we approached the new millennium. I had a lot to learn from her and she was happy to teach it. Bessie and I understood and appreciated each other despite our obvious differences.
She was much older than me and became like my surrogate aunt. I called her Aunt Bessie, Aunt B or by her nickname, BB. In true biker tradition, she gave me a nickname, too: Opal, for the blue-white stone that changes colors with the light, "just like your moods," she once quipped.
I was honored to become the authorized biographer of Bessie Stringfield at her request, and to preserve her story and her truth. When the first video on Facebook earned millions of views, it became clear that Bessie Stringfield is an inspirational figure for our times.
Yet her posthumous fame poses a question: How could a local Miami woman become a global icon a quarter-century after her death and still remain a mystery to her fans? Well, Bessie was not a public figure. I published my early stories with highlights of her life, ensuring that Bessie's achievements would not be buried in the sand. My original stories were spread exponentially on the Internet and social media. That is how Bessie was introduced to the public and the global community. But the woman behind the icon remains enigmatic to the world, because there is much more to Bessie that I have never released to anyone before.
My readers have let me know they are hungry for more detail. Here, I tell the backstory and offer selected glimpses into My African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield and Me, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road. This is my new book-in-progress.
I am delving deeper into the amazing life of Bessie Stringfield, from the perspective of the unusual bond that we shared in the last three years of her life. It is a journey that's been hidden in Bessie's exclusive oral history tapes that I recorded, and tucked away in my diaries from the early 1990s. The story is unique and cannot be told by anyone else.
Bessie and I were each in our prime during our adventurous road trips. But our journeys and defiance of convention were half-a-century apart and we were each viewed differently by society because of our skin colors.
My book represents the voices and legacies of two different women who bonded and dug in our heels against the pull of our families' ethnic and social traditions, hers being Southern Black Baptist in humble beginnings, and mine being Southern Italian American of the working class Stayin' Alive generation in Brooklyn, New York. What two women could be more ostensibly mismatched?
Bessie never felt that only a black woman could write her story; she had friends and romantic partners of all stripes whom she let in to love her. Being a writer and a biker who became a trusted friend, I was the only person to whom she gave her life story. Her time on earth was ephemeral but to me, her spirit has never truly left.
We first met in 1990, when Bessie was 79 and had done more than 60 years of riding. I was 35 and just starting my road trips for my book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road (NY: Crown, 1996). That was my debut book in which I introduced Bessie to a global readership. Bessie did not live to see herself in Hear Me Roar. When she died in 1993, I wrote her eulogy for American Iron magazine, introducing her to Harley devotees around the world. When Bessie was inducted posthumously to the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002, I wrote two tribute bios of Bessie for the museum website, which were posted sequentially and read by millions the world over.
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.
African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield will include new information about Bessie from her oral history that I recorded, and from our many other talks, recounted in my diaries, which I have never released before. From the positive feedback and tremendous interest that I’ve received already, I know that Bessie's story of grit and determination against the odds has struck a chord with a new generation.
In my close-up view, Bessie Stringfield was both a product of her era, yet simultaneously, she was way ahead of her time. She was a solo act of contradictions. She became a Roman Catholic but married and divorced six times. I knew that the younger Bessie was bold and even audacious, and that she had certainly withstood her share of racial prejudice. Yet she did not allow society's limited views of African Americans to define or limit her.
Bessie lived her life as a black woman, yet without being asked, she sometimes brought up that her late mother had been white. Bessie's childhood was complicated, even enigmatic, as she described it to me and to others in her past. I've seen the adjective “Dickensian” in articles compiled decades after her death from secondary and tertiary material. Even a New York Times obituary, which recognized Bessie among notable yet overlooked women of color, seemed baffled by her past.
A quarter-century after her death, Bessie’s achievements resound strongly in the current 21st-century wave of rediscovered heroines and bold female role models. But sorting out the compartments of Bessie Stringfield retrospectively is an impossible task for those who never met her. The hundreds of Google hits on Bessie can only go in circles and stop at dead ends. You'll have to wait for my primary-sourced book for a trip into Bessie's labyrinth.
I knew her at a quiet, reflective time in her later life when she shared meandering memories with me over time. I learned, Never underestimate the mind, motives and secrets of this uncanny elder. With her wanderlust, Bessie had strayed far from her station, taking risks in defiance of worried and disapproving relatives. Bessie skirted limits placed on race and gender to lead an unconventional life, but she also slid back into convention in order to get by. She was not free of regrets.
On social media and in emails I receive from my readers here and abroad, people are in awe of Bessie Stringfield. Some of you say things like, “Wow, Bessie was a badass woman!” I get it. Bessie was strong and the word reflects today’s movement for women’s empowerment.
Women of color have told me they feel an emotional connection to Bessie. They view her as a symbol of freedom and a role model for being unapologetically black. Women of all races have told me they view Bessie as a symbol of pride in gender, reflecting admiration for more overlooked women taking their rightful place in the pantheon.
Bessie took control of the handlebars as a long-distance motorcycle rider in an era when it was rare for any woman, and unprecedented for a woman of color. Today, “rise and ride” has become a slogan among a new generation of women bikers who are, in effect, part of Bessie's legacy. I am heartened to know that my stories on Bessie Stringfield have such great relevance today, and that her achievements have inspired so many in this generation.
For all of her nerve in her youth and her prime, I want my readers to know that Bessie was equally brave as an elder when facing challenges of a different kind. That is what made me cherish her. She was a multi-dimensional woman whose long, complicated life cannot be condensed into new-media sound bites or wiki-type articles.
Bessie Stringfield has always been the star of my narratives and I have stayed in the background, writing in the third person, but that is no longer possible. Bessie’s story might have remained buried in her sleepy Miami neighborhood had not this out-of-town author from New York seen the importance of recording her on tape, preserving those recordings and then writing her truth. That’s who I am: the storyteller, the messenger at Bessie's request. This is what defines me as her authorized biographer and a primary source.
I was honored and humbled to be asked. Why did Bessie ask me to be her biographer? Well, for starters, Bessie believed that the Man Upstairs ordained everything; to her, there were no coincidences. The first thing Bessie intuited was the old soul in me, born of my ethnic tradition of holding one’s elders on high. I was also a biker who understood, adored and identified with Bessie on that gritty tomboy level. Plus I was a female writer with a track record of covering women's lives. It made sense that she entrusted me with her story. She knew I'd take good care of it.
I saw in Bessie what her peers in Miami did not see. They were impressed with her being a lone black woman riding a Harley unabashedly around town. But I didn’t see Bessie as a treasure reserved only for the local black community or as an eccentric Floridian destined for Southern folklore. In the words of a mutual friend, "Bessie had gravitas. You don't forget a person like that."
Indeed. I saw Bessie Stringfield as the trailblazer that she was. I knew that, long before the women's movement and even before the Civil Rights movement, Bessie had already achieved a lot in a world that was mostly male and white.
As a senior, Bessie was still riding Harleys but she chose to retreat from the spotlight. Yet toward the end of her life, Bessie thought about what legacy she wanted to leave. That's precisely when I stumbled into her life. I knew that her story needed to be preserved and told beyond the limits of South Florida. This time I am exploring the depths of her life in a book that is both biography and memoir, stemming from my first-hand experience of Bessie, her oral history that I recorded exclusively, and my diaries of the period.
Some of my readers have asked me, "What have you been waiting for?" The answer is complicated and best reserved for the book. For now, I'll say this: All good things happen in their time. Bessie’s time is now. Culturally and historically significant figures tend to take their place in history only after enough time has passed to enable perspective and appreciation. That is the case with Bessie Stringfield. And with the wisdom borne of facing and overcoming challenges in my own life, it’s my time as an author again, too.
Speaking of authorship, I’d like to touch briefly upon something that has struck not just me, but many other author-originators. It stems from the nature of the Internet content mill, where the rapid news cycle perhaps does not allow time for content writers to dig for primary sources? As a result, I’ve seen my material—my creative writer's voice—used by others as an anonymous resource.
In news and reference pieces, online videos and other media, I’ve found that quotes, anecdotes and other exclusive information from my original stories on Bessie have been inserted elsewhere as if she was speaking to no one, or to some other secondary or tertiary reporter. Even my perspectives and conclusions on Bessie's life, and my creative presentation of her story, have been emulated by others without citation of this author as the primary source. This practice leads to a host of issues.
That said, I'd like to share a sentiment from rocker Melissa Etheridge, who was quoted in a great book called A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon. In the book, Etheridge said: "We are getting older, and we are getting wiser, and we are getting freer. And when you get the wisdom and the truth, then you get the freedom and you get power, and then–look out. Look out." On that resounding note, I invite my readers and fans of Bessie Stringfield to enjoy my website for a visit with the world's two most unlikeliest biker chicks. — Ann Ferrar
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Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.