Queen of the Road
Bessie Stringfield and Me
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 primary source and sole rights-holder of this material in its entirety, and she reserves all rights to her work. These original stories from the author's forthcoming book African American Queen of the Road—Bessie Stringfield and Me, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road, and the exclusive oral history of Bessie Stringfield recorded by Ann Ferrar, are registered with the Library of Congress and are protected by U.S. and International Copyright Laws. This content and its other versions may not be pirated, adapted to other media, duplicated, stored or otherwise plagiarized, in whole or in part, by other parties in any media. The author's original stories on Bessie Stringfield appear here and have been published in her book Hear Me Roar (1996; 2000); on the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame website (2002; 2018); in periodicals (1993-2003); and on the author's former website AnnFerrar.com (2007-2018). The author's intellectual property includes (but is not limited to) her narrative prose, storylines, chronicles and perspectives on the life of Bessie Stringfield, as well as dialogue and quotes from Bessie Stringfield as told to Ann Ferrar. For user-friendly details on intellectual property, copyright guidelines and reaching out to the author, please click on "Copyright Details" on the navigation bar. Now, enjoy the ride.
A PRELUDE TO MY JOURNEY IN PROGRESS WITH BESSIE ON MY MIND
Bessie Stringfield (1911-1993) was an African American motorcycling pioneer who defied 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 Harleys and was a World War II courier. In the 1950s and ’60s, she was the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” Today, Bessie Stringfield has a new generation of fans with a viral video, events and awards in her honor. Yet as a woman, she is still largely unknown. But not to me.
With Bessie’s blessing and encouragement, I recorded her oral history on a series of audio tapes during the last three years of her life, becoming the only author to record the voice and the stories of Bessie Stringfield as told by Bessie herself.
Bessie Stringfield and I were an unlikely pair of "biker chicks." Our friendship during those precious three years transcended racial, regional and generational differences. We traded stories of her being a 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. Bessie and I understood and appreciated each other despite our obvious differences. She was like a surrogate aunt to me.
I was honored to become Bessie's authorized biographer at her request, and to preserve and interpret her story, which might otherwise have been lost beyond the confines of Miami. In response to popular demand from readers of my earlier stories on Bessie, and from her many fans on social media, I’ve created this web site. The site has previews of African American Queen of the Road—The Real Bessie Stringfield and Me, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road. This is my copyrighted, primary-sourced biography and memoir in progress. I am delving deeper into the amazing life of Bessie Stringfield and on the personal bond that we shared in the last three years of her life. It is a journey, preserved in the tapes and hidden in my diaries, 25 years in the making.
Bessie and I were each in our prime during our most adventurous road trips. But our journeys and our defiance of convention were half-a-century apart, and we were each viewed differently by American society. My forthcoming book represents the voices and legacies of two different women who bonded and went against type in two different eras.
We first met in 1990, when Bessie was 79 and had done more than 60 years of riding. I was 35 and just beginning my adventures 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 featured in the pages of Hear Me Roar. When she died in 1993, I wrote her eulogy for American Iron magazine, introducing her to Harley devotees around the world. And in 2002, when Bessie was inducted posthumously to the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame, I revisited her oral history and wrote a tribute bio of Bessie for the museum website. Over time, the bio was read by countless people who were inspired by her life as I had written it, especially those who read my earlier, longer piece over the years.
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.
Today, my long-form biography/memoir, African American Queen of the Road—The Real Bessie Stringfield and Me, includes new information about Bessie from her oral history that I recorded but 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, and our interracial, intergenerational friendship, have 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 astoundingly ahead of her time. She was a solo act of seeming contradictions. She was Catholic but married and divorced six times. I knew that while the younger Bessie was bold and sometimes audacious, she also embraced tolerance and racial diversity, overall kindness, and faith in her only guru, Jesus Christ, whom she called The Man Upstairs.
Bessie lived her life as a black woman, yet without being asked, she sometimes brought up in conversations that her late mother had been white. Bessie's childhood was enigmatic as she described it to me and to others who are now gone. I've seen the word “Dickensian” in pass-along articles and even in a muddled, incredulous obituary compiled decades after Bessie's death.
Sorting out the compartments of Bessie Stringfield retrospectively is an impossible task for those who never met her. Since they cannot question a long-dead woman directly, they cannot know the nuances in Bessie's mindset, nor the motives that led to it. You'll have to wait for my memoir for a trip into Bessie's labyrinth. I knew her at a time in her life when she sat back quietly, reflecting on all of it and sharing it with me. Never underestimate an elder.
On social media and in emails I receive from 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. Let’s just not confuse “badass” with “lookin’ for trouble” or “chip on her shoulder.”
African American women have told me they feel an emotional connection to Bessie. They view her as a symbol of freedom and strength, and as a role model of racial and cultural pride. She was a black woman who took control of the handlebars in an era when it was unprecedented for women of her race. Today, “rise and ride” has become a slogan among women who are, in effect, part of Bessie’s legacy in the 21st century. The story of Bessie Stringfield has tremendous relevance today for all women. I wish she could be here to see it. I’m glad I’m still here to tell it.
With insights that can only come my first-hand perspective of Bessie, and wisdom from my own life experience which was impacted by hers, I am looking back on the life of Bessie Stringfield and our unusual friendship in her later years. For all of her nerve in her youth and her prime, I want you to know that Bessie was equally brave as a soft-spoken elder when facing challenges of a different kind. That is what made me cherish her.
By now, many of you have read or heard about my original, earlier short-form works on Bessie Stringfield. Yet some of you may not realize that a lot of what you have seen about Bessie elsewhere in print and on the Internet stems from my original written works. The pass-along nature of the Web has led to the exponential spread and uncredited imitations of my stories, sometimes verbatim, sometimes paraphrased one line at a time, without my permission and without citation of me as the primary source, as if I were a ghost. It is weird to come across my prose—my own writer's voice—floating in the sea of cyberspace like a baby dolphin missing its mother. It's even weirder to see disembodied quotes from Bessie appear as if she was speaking aloud to no one, and weirdest to see recycled stories with major errors that did not come from me.
Recently, I connected with a fan of Bessie’s who had read my work and even knew my name.
She told me, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Puzzled, I replied, “Sure. I’ve been here all along.”
She said, “We thought you were dead.”
Whoa! I’m much younger than Bessie was. I called her Aunt, but it could have been Grandma. I've always been a private person, but in these pages, you’ll get to know a little about me and my relationship with Bessie Stringfield. She was my friend and mentor during a window of time that was pivotal for both of us. In retrospect, it was the strike zone of my life. Baseball geeks will get what I mean; the rest of you will get it later. For Bessie, it was the last few seasons of a long and distinguished career, one that would forever change the game of her motorcycling milieu.
Bessie has always been the star of my narratives, this one and the earlier versions. Yet Bessie’s story might have remained hidden in Miami if someone had not seen the importance of recording her on tape, preserving those recordings and then writing her truth. That’s who I am: the storyteller on behalf of Bessie, the messenger at her request. I was honored and humbled to be asked. Since I was a part of Bessie’s life in her final three years, this time I am exploring the depths of her story in the form of a memoir in the first person.
And so, in the spirit of these times when more and more women are finding strength in their voices, I remind everyone to please respect that I am the originator, primary source and the rights-holder of the material on this website and its other, earlier versions. No more motherless dolphins, please. All of my narratives, storylines and chronicles on the life of Bessie Stringfield are registered with the Library of Congress, as are the audio recordings with Bessie's quotes told directly to me.
Besides the narratives on this website, my earlier original stories on Bessie Stringfield were published in my book Hear Me Roar (1996; 2000); on the website of the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame (2002; 2017); on my former website AnnFerrar.com (2007-2018); in American Iron Magazine (1993); and in American Motorcyclist Magazine (1993; 2003). My stories on Bessie have been a labor of love and in honor of the promise that I made to her.
All that said, you can still reach out to me. You may ask for limited permissions to accurately quote from my written works or borrow photos with proper crediting of this author by name. Keep the dolphins together by simply clicking on the “Copyright Details” button on the navigation bar and reading the user-friendly notes inside. Then reach me via the contact email or the message-form on this site.
I look forward to seeing you down the road. African American Queen of the Road—Bessie Stringfield and Me, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road is a continuation of my preservation, interpretation and celebration of the amazing life of my mentor, friend and surrogate aunt, Bessie Stringfield. It’s a memoir that’s been twenty-five years in the making. Now, enjoy this two-part preview. — Ann Ferrar
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.