When 16-year-old Bessie Stringfield asked for a motorcycle, she didn’t even know how to ride one.
That didn’t stop her from becoming the first black woman to complete a solo cross-country motorcycle ride 3 years later in 1930.
Bessie & her 1928 Indian Motorcycle Scout traveled to all 48 continental States, and even a handful of international destinations. But she did so with the knowledge that it would be harder out there on the road for her, especially alone, because she was black. Bessie sometimes slept in parking lots on her motorcycle because no one would rent a room to a black person. A white man once followed and ran her off the road, just because he could. Later in her career, she was regularly harassed by police officers in Miami who would pull her over constantly & told her that “n*gger women are not allowed to ride motorcycles.” They obviously didn’t know Bessie.
Bessie funded her motorcycle rides by performing stunts in local carnivals and winning prize money in motorcycle competitions, and she was so good, people eventually called her the “the Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” But perhaps they should have called her the Motorcycle Queen of the United States, because Bessie wasn’t just an incredible leisure rider — she found a way to use her passion to serve her country too.
During World War II, Bessie was a civilian dispatch rider for the U.S. Army, responsible for carrying messages across distances to other domestic bases, especially when there were fears that military communications were compromised. And she had the perfect cover — no one would have suspected that a black woman on a motorcycle would be carrying important missives for the armed forces, and yet, there she was.
After her first Indian, she switched to Harleys and rode 27 of them in her lifetime, so in 1990, the American Motorcyclist Association honored her in their inaugural “Heroes of Harley-Davidson” exhibit. In 2000, the AMA recognized her again with the "Bessie Stringfield Award," presented annually to individuals who’d made great strides in introducing new communities to motorcycling. And finally, she was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. Bessie died in 1993 at the ripe old age of 82, so she didn’t live to see most of the honors she received, but when she passed, she was undoubtedly happy. Before her death, doctors advised her to give up riding. Her answer? “I told him if I don’t ride, I won’t live long. And so I never did quit.”