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 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—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield, 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, scanned, stored or otherwise plagiarized, in whole or in part, by other parties in any media. The author's collection of 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); on the author's former website AnnFerrar.com (2007-2018); and in periodicals (1993-2003). The author's intellectual property includes (but is not limited to) her narrative prose, storylines, vignettes, perspectives, opinions and conclusions on the life of Bessie Stringfield, as well as dialogue, anecdotes and quotes from Bessie Stringfield as told to Ann Ferrar. Photos are from Ferrar's personal collection and may not be reprinted without prior written permission from the author. For user-friendly details on intellectual property and copyright guidelines and restrictions, please click on "Copyright Details" on the navigation bar.
LOOKING BEYOND THE ICON: THE BACKSTORY TO MY JOURNEY WITH BESSIE IN A NEW BOOK
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 Harleys and was a World War II courier. With courage and faith, she traveled alone on primitive roads despite the risks to lone female travelers and the many threats to African Americans. In the 1950s and ’60s, she was the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” Today, Bessie Stringfield has become an icon with a new generation of fans the world over. There is a viral video, plus huge group motorcycle rides and achievement awards that honor her legacy. Yet the complex, flesh-and-blood Bessie behind the icon is still 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. She is still a big inspiration in all areas of my own life and now, she is the heroine of my new book in progress.
Bessie Stringfield and I were an unlikely pair of "biker chicks" and we chuckled about it often enough. Our friendship during her last three golden 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 or simply Aunt B.
I was honored to become the authorized biographer of Bessie Stringfield at her request, and to preserve her story, which might otherwise have been lost beyond the confines of Miami. When the first video on Facebook earned millions of views, it became clear that Bessie Stringfield is an inspirational figure for our times. In these pages, you'll learn why. In response to popular demand from readers of my earlier stories on Bessie, and from her many global fans on social media, I’ve created this website.
Here, I will tell you the backstory and provide a glimpse into African American Queen of the Road—The Untold Story of Bessie Stringfield, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road. This is my primary-sourced book-in-progress. I am delving deeper into the amazing life of Bessie Stringfield, from the perspective of the unusual, personal 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 of the period where I mused on our countless other talks.
Bessie and I were each in our prime during our most adventurous road trips. But our journeys and defiance of convention were half-a-century apart and we were each viewed differently by society. My forthcoming 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 Italian American of the working class Stayin' Alive generation in Brooklyn, New York. She and I were like a pair of mismatched salt and pepper shakers, allegorically speaking. Her voice and stories are in the forefront and mine in the background.
Bessie never felt that only a black woman could write her story; she had friends, riding buddies, coworkers and romantic partners of all stripes and ages whom she let in to love her. I was among that lucky, motley group toward the end. Being a writer and a biker who became a trusted friend, I was the only person to whom she gave her life story, to preserve and purvey on the page. Bessie has been gone a long time but to me, she has never truly left. Over the years, Bessie has inspired me to write an evolving collection of stories about her unusual life.
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 a tribute bio of Bessie for the museum website, and a print piece for American Motorcyclist magazine. My museum piece was posted on the Hall of Fame website from 2002 to early 2018, where it was read, quoted and used as a resource by countless people who were inspired by Bessie's life as I had written it. I did have to abridge the piece, however, to make way for this website.
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 seeming 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 to define or limit her. Bessie embraced ethnic diversity and she chose to practice tolerance, patience and kindness, all stemming from her 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 complicated, even enigmatic, as she described it to me and to others in her past. Recently I've seen the adjective “Dickensian” in articles compiled decades after her death and even in a major newspaper obituary, which was intended to pay Bessie respect as part of a retrospective on notable women of color.
A quarter-century after her passing, Bessie’s achievements resound so strongly in the current 21st-century wave of rediscovered heroines and bold female role models. In any group of "sheros," there is not a single one like my Aunt Bessie Stringfield. However, sorting out the compartments of Bessie Stringfield retrospectively is an impossible task for those who never met her. Since they cannot question a complicated, long-dead woman, they cannot know the nuances in Bessie's mindset, nor should they rely on certain things that tell only part of the hidden story. You'll have to wait for my book for a trip into Bessie's labyrinth.
I knew her at a quiet time in her later life when she sat back, reflecting and sharing memories with me over time. With earned trust and patience, I listened closely when she was circumspect and I did not presume a thing. I learned, Never underestimate the mind, motives and secrets of this uncanny elder. With her wanderlust, Bessie had strayed far from her station, placing herself in risky situations in defiance of her concerned, disapproving foremothers and forefathers, including risks that most of us wouldn't dare to try, even today. At different times, Bessie deftly skirted limits placed on race and gender to lead her unconventional life. At other times, however, she put her bold on hold, and slid seamlessly into convention in order to get by.
I gleaned that Bessie had survived not just with street-smarts, stubbornness and guile. While Bessie could be circumspect, she had loads of charm and natural allure, and as mentioned, she exuded faith, kindness, tolerance and caring. With all this, she packed an emotional punch on those whom she let into her sphere. All of her traits were bound together by sheer nerve and an unwavering faith that The Man Upstairs was beside her for every mile of her journey. What a woman!
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.” She was smarter and more refined than that.
I've heard from women, girls and men—white, black and everything in between—from all over the globe, who have been inspired by Bessie's story. Women of color in particular have told me they feel an emotional connection to Bessie. They view her as a symbol of freedom and strength, a role model of racial and cultural pride. Women of all races have told me they view Bessie as a symbol of pride in gender, which has nothing to do with race and everything to do with more and more overlooked women finally taking their rightful place in the pantheon.
Bessie was a woman of color who 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 in the 21st century. The story of Bessie Stringfield has great relevance today. I wish she could be here to see it and know it. I’m glad I’m still here to tell it.
With insights from my first-hand perspective of Bessie, I am looking back on the life of Bessie Stringfield from the up-close, personal, primary-sourced vantage point of 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 an elder when facing challenges of a different kind. That is what made me cherish her. She was a multi-dimensional woman who lived a full, long life, both in and off the saddles of her motorcycles. She had regrets and some inner demons that leaked out in our talks, despite her unwavering faith in God and her outer triumphs that inspire us today. Those triumphs came at a sacrifice.
Bessie Stringfield has always been the star of my narratives and I have stayed quietly in the background, where I intend to remain. Yet 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 on behalf of Bessie, the messenger at her request. This is what defines me as her authorized biographer. I knew Bessie personally as a friend. In addition to the recordings, we had countless other conversations in the last three years of her life and I have explored other hidden passageways; all that defines me as a primary source.
My stories about Bessie have been a labor of love. 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. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I’d never met anyone like Bessie Stringfield, and she told me the reverse was equally true. The first thing Bessie intuited was the old soul in me, born of my Italian American tradition of holding one’s elders on high. I was also a biker who understood Bessie on that tomboy level; I adored that part of her and identified with it. And I was a female writer with a track record of writing women’s lives, having worked and freelanced for major women's magazines in New York.
Bessie’s contemporaries in Miami loved her and were impressed with her being a lone woman riding her Harley around town. But I didn’t see Bessie as a local treasure or someone destined for obscurity in South Florida 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 white man's world before she settled in Miami. 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 this woman’s story needed to be preserved and told beyond the limits of South Florida. So that's what I did and have continued to do. This time I am exploring the depths of her story in a book. Since it stems from my first-hand experience of Bessie, plus her oral history that I recorded exclusively, and from other previously unreleased material, the story is unique and cannot be told by anyone else.
Some of you have read my earlier short-form works on Bessie Stringfield including those mentioned above, or my collection of stories about Bessie that were posted on my former website AnnFerrar.com (2007-2018; that site is now replaced with this one). But you may not realize that the pass-along, cut-and-paste nature of the Web has led to the exponential spread and uncredited imitations of my stories. While I am glad to know that I've succeeded in keeping Bessie's story alive to inspire so many others, it is disconcerting to find my material used by others as an anonymous resource on the Web, in print and other media. Web pieces especially tend to borrow from each other without looking further. Thus, quotes, anecdotes and events that Bessie told me about in our talks have popped up elsewhere as if she was speaking aloud to no one. Even my perspectives and conclusions on Bessie's life and achievements have been repeated by others without citation of me as the source. And then errors (which did not come from me) have seeped into the mix.
Neither Bessie nor I could have foreseen the the rolling avalanche of the 24/7 Web content mill and recycling center, which does not allow time for in-depth research and thus, where standards for citation of primary sources have fallen by the wayside. Imagine trying to explain to Bessie the new meaning of "viral" or the compression of a person's life into a wiki-type piece far removed from the original source. And so, in today's spirit of more and more women finding strength in their voices, and in doing what Bessie herself would want me to do as a strong woman in my own right, I remind everyone to please respect that I am the originator, primary source and sole rights-holder of the material about, and from, Bessie Stringfield on this website, and the material on Bessie in my earlier stories in print, online and in other media. All components of my stories about Bessie comprise this author-originator's intellectual property.
By now it's clear that my collection of published writings on Bessie stem my actual experience of Bessie herself and from my documentation of her life story, done at her request. My writings on Bessie date back to the early 1990s, thus predating everything else drawn from my works, whether credited, or missing the correct citations, or missing citations entirely. The nature of the Web mill has made it necessary for me to reinforce all this and to reiterate my copyrights, which are registered with the Library of Congress. The photos are from my personal collection and may not be reprinted without prior written permission from me. Okay; glad that's out of the way.
Not many authors would pause to devote an entire website in advance of a book, but I have done so in response to my readers. Many have asked me to elaborate on the stories about Bessie that I began so long ago, to reveal more of the woman behind her achievements, and to let them hear more of her voice that's been hidden in the tapes that I recorded.
For now, dear readers, I'd say this: All good things happen in their time. Bessie’s time is now. Historical figures tend to take their place in history only after enough time has passed to enable a full perspective on their achievements. This is the case with Bessie Stringfield. And with the wisdom of my own accumulated life–and writing–experience, it’s my time as an author again, too.
I'd like to share with you a sentiment from rocker Melissa Etheridge, a heroine of mine, 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 note, I invite you to enjoy the rest of this website. It provides glimpses into selected highlights of Bessie’s life, and where we stood in relation to each other as female friends of different eras and skin colors. Both of these factors were embedded in our experiences of two different Americas. The website, however, does not necessarily reflect my approach to the book's final narrative. Am I keeping you guessing? Well, yes. I invite you to share your thoughts and reactions on social media, too. — Ann Ferrar
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Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.