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, 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.
PRELUDE: MY NEXT JOURNEY WITH BESSIE IN A NEW BOOK
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, cross-country rides and achievement awards in honor of her legacy. 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. Now, she is the heroine of my new book in progress.
Bessie Stringfield and I were an unlikely pair of "biker chicks." Our friendship during those 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 much older than me and became like my surrogate aunt.
I was honored to become Bessie's authorized biographer at her request, and to preserve her story, which might otherwise have been lost beyond the confines of Miami. When a 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 fans on social media, I’ve created this web site. The site has previews of African American Queen of the Road—Bessie Stringfield and Me, A Memoir of Race, Friendship, Resilience and the Road. This is my primary-sourced biography in progress. In the book, I am delving deeper into the amazing life of Bessie Stringfield and on the 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 and in my diaries of the period.
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 and mine being Italian American of the working class Stayin' Alive generation in Brooklyn. She and I were like a pair of mismatched salt and pepper shakers, allegorically speaking. 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. She's 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—Bessie Stringfield and Me will include 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 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 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 complicated, even enigmatic, as she described it to me and to others in her past. Recently I've seen the word “Dickensian” in articles compiled decades after her death and even in a major metropolitan newspaper obituary. While it intended to pay Bessie her due respects as part of a retrospective on notable women of color, I could not help but feel that it missed the point and the essence of the Bessie Stringfield I knew.
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. You'll have to wait for my book for a trip into Bessie's labyrinth. I knew her at a quiet time in her 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 situations that her disapproving foremothers wouldn't dare, and which most of us would choose to avoid. At different times, she deftly skirted limits placed on race and gender. I gleaned that Bessie had survived with a mixture of charm, guile, faith, stubbornness and sheer nerve. 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 than that.
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 as a long-distance motorcycle rider in an era when it was rare for any woman, and unprecedented for a woman of her race. Today, “rise and ride” has become a slogan among a new generation of African American women bikers who are, in effect, part of Bessie's legacy in the 21st century. The story of Bessie Stringfield has great relevance today and is a source of inspiration for all women. 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, 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.
Bessie Stringfield has always been the star of my narratives and I have stayed quietly in the background. 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; that is what defines me as a primary source.
I did the work as 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.
There is another part of my background and my world view that Bessie did not realize until I explained it to her. We are all a product of our influences. I came of age as a college student in the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s, when women pushed for their right to achieve. 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. In her seventies and early eighties, Bessie was still riding Harleys but mostly felt that her time in the spotlight had passed. Yet later, toward the end of her life, Bessie thought about what legacy she wanted to leave. 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. Since I was a part of Bessie’s life in her final three years and dedicated myself to keeping her legacy alive, this time I am exploring the depths of her biography in a long-form memoir, which actually has been 25 years in the making.
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 nature of the Web has led to the exponential spread and uncredited imitations of my stories. It has been weird to come across my stories, and paraphrased versions of them, used as an anonymous resource on the web and in other media, too. Quotes and anecdotes from Bessie in our talks pop up as if she was speaking aloud to no one. And then errors (which did not come from me) have seeped into the mix.
Neither Bessie nor I could have foreseen the rolling avalanche of the Web. Imagine trying to explain to her the new meaning of "viral." We could not have known that, a quarter-century after her passing, Bessie’s achievements would resound so strongly in the current 21st-century wave of rediscovered heroines, bold female role models and brainiacs. In any group of "sheros," there is not a single one like my Aunt Bessie Stringfield.
And so, in today's spirit of more and more women finding strength and affirmation in their voices, and in doing what Bessie herself would want me to do, I remind everyone to please respect that I am the originator, primary source and rights-holder of the material about Bessie Stringfield on this website, and the material on Bessie in my earlier stories in print and online. My collection of published writings on Bessie date back to the early 1990s. 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.
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 deeper revelation of the amazing life of my mentor, friend and surrogate aunt, Bessie Stringfield. For now, enjoy these previews. — Ann Ferrar
Photos are from the collection of Ann Ferrar. May not be used without permission.