By David Walters
Sleeping on the side of the road, rest stops, gas stations. Your bike for a bed, a jacket for a pillow. Up with the sun, no shower, no need for clean clothes, pounding down the miles again. Unfriendly stares and gawkers, getting refused service in some bar or diner. Just another day in the life of a biker, right?
Based off that, you probably have this image in your head. A pack, or a couple of brothers, jammin’ gears down the highway, bugs in their teeth, hair in the wind. Righteousness. In this story, I’m talking about a single person. A woman. A Black woman. Crisscrossing the US of A from the 1930s till her death. In a time of Jim Crow laws, 10 years after women secured the right to vote, in states that still had legal lynching on the books, roads that were barely more than gravel pits, and before a mass highway or interstate system, where you’d find her, throttle open on her 1928 Indian Scout. Later, you’d see her on one of her 27 Harley Davidsons she owned in her lifetime.
That woman, that badass, was nicknamed “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami“. Her real name was Betsy Ellis, if you follow motorcycle history, you know her as Betsy “Bessie” Stringfield. Her early life is a bit of a mystery, and a little bit Charles Dickens. In her own biography, Bessie describes an early childhood of unknown birth parents, abandonment and finally adoption by a family that would give her that first Indian scoot. Bessie claims to have been born in Jamaica before being brought to the US and raised in Boston. Some accounts have her originally born in North Carolina, and most records put her birth somewhere between 1911 and 1912. On one marriage license, she lists her date of birth as 1913. One great anecdote is a quote from her saying ” Even in my 80s I wouldn’t want a man over 24″. Changing up your birthday is one way to keep bringing in the younger guys!
Whatever the myth versus facts in her early life may be, her impact on the history, and future, of the motorcycling culture cannot be denied. The Motorcycle Queen of Miami got her first motorcycle, that Indian when she was 16. She taught herself how to ride and maintain it. In 1930 at the age of 19, Bessie tossed a penny onto a map. Where it landed, she rode. This would be the first insight of the fire that burned in her soul for seeing how many state lines she could cross. She would become the first woman to ride across the US. During WWII she worked as a civilian dispatch rider for the Army. In her 4 years of service, she would make 8 solo trips across the US. Even as an official dispatch rider for the Army, she would find motels view and far between that would rent a room to a black female. Often, she would sleep behind a filling station, or request to stay with local black families she came across on her travels.
In the 50s and 60s, she would continue to ride cross country. At the height of racial upheaval and the Civil Rights Movement. She would ride through the Deep South at a time before well-paved roads, or even some interstates. She recalls one episode where someone in a truck attempted to run her off the road. Un-phased, she finished her ride. She wouldn’t be denied the ride, all the while being denied meals in diners and having to ask roadside farmers for food. Upon moving to Miami, a Police Captain told her that she couldn’t ride. After weeks of harassment, she went down to the local station and challenged the Captain to allow her to prove herself. In an adjacent parking lot, over the next couple of hours, she would perform stunts, and maneuvers, winning over the Police Captain and giving rise to the legend of the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami”.
During her adventures she would make money with traveling and local carnivals, performing motorcycle stunt and ability shows. She would perform on the Wall of Death and enter races. As a female and a black female, Bessie wasn’t allowed to enter sponsored races. She would often dress as a man, and after winning the race, have to forfeit the prize money when it was discovered she was a woman.
Before her death in 1993 at age 82, Bessie would also become a registered nurse in Miami, fitting it in somewhere between touring the country on her Harley, which she called “the only motorcycle company she loved”. She would go on to found the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, made up of men and women. She would also ride through Europe, Brazil, and Haiti, in addition to her lower 48 States covered. Like a lot of hardcore bikers, Bessie had a divorce… or two… under her belt. Actually, Bessie had 6 marriages and divorces under her belt. Maybe she let me go when they turned 25??? Bessie tells the story that her second husband had begged her to keep the name Stringfield after their divorce. In her words, she says “He begged me to keep the last name. Nobody had made it famous before, he wanted to keep it known!”. I don’t think any of my ex’s ever said that about me!
In 2002 the AMA inducted Bessie into its Hall of Fame, and in 2000 the AMA named an award after her that recognizes outstanding achievement by a Female Motorcyclist. 2016 saw a series of graphic novels released to promote her inspiration to woman riders and people of color. In 2017, Time released a short video biography that covers her achievements and pays homage to her. Ann Ferrar also authored the authorized biography about her friend and mentor, Bessie. The Motorcycle Museum in Iowa also has one of Bessie’s beloved Harleys on hand.
Today Bessie’s memory lives on, not just in the annual AMA award given in her honor, but also in media, books, and the upcoming 5th annual Bessie Stringfield Ride. The ride is open to women riders and raises money to promote women riding and inner-city motorcycle projects. The ride will be coming up June 20th, starting in Atlanta, and working its way to Milwaukee. It will make stops along the way, including an overnight celebration in Illinois and a party at the end at the Harley Museum in Milwaukee and a display highlighting her accomplishments.