African-American Transportation History: Bessie Stringfield, Motorcyclist

African-American motorcycle pioneer Bessie Stringfield was born sometime around 1911 in Kingston, Jamaica. (She was originally called Betsy Leonora Ellis, but she eventually became known as “Bessie” instead of “Betsy”; “Stringfield” was the last name of her third husband.) While born on foreign soil, she became a U.S. citizen after immigrating at a young age to Boston, Massachusetts, with her parents.

Stringfield taught herself how to ride her first motorcycle when she was only 16. About three years later, she became the first African-American woman to ride a motorcycle across the United States on her own.

Stringfield went on to make at least seven more long-distance motorcycle trips throughout the nation and ultimately traveled within all 48 of the contiguous states. She undertook these trips despite often being denied accommodations en route due to her skin color and having to instead sleep on her motorcycle at filling stations.

Stringfield made similarly ambitious motorcycle rides across Europe, Brazil, and Haiti. In addition, she earned money with her riding skills by performing motorcycle stunts in carnival shows. Her expertise with that mode of transportation also enabled her to serve as a civilian courier for the U.S. Army during World War II; she routinely used a motorcycle at that time to deliver documents between military bases on the homefront.

In the 1950s, Stringfield ended up living in Miami, Florida. Despite initial discriminatory treatment from a number of residents there, she eventually earned a great deal of respect for her riding abilities and was given the honorary title “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami” by the local press.

Stringfield, who died in 1993, was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. The American Motorcyclist Association’s “Bessie Stringfield Memorial Award” is now presented to recognize outstanding achievements by female motorcyclists.

For more information on Bessie Stringfield, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessie_Stringfield and www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=277.

Her New York Times obituary is available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/obituaries/overlooked-bessie-stringfield.html.

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