'Nice girls' didn't ride motorcycles. How Bessie Stringfield and her Harley broke barriers

In the 49 years since I started as a reporter with The Miami Herald, I have written about many notable people. Some I remember; some I don’t.

Bessie B. Stringfield is one I remember fondly.

I was 9 years old the first time I saw Bessie. It was the morning of the Orange Blossom Classic Parade and Overtown was sizzling with excitement. Momma got me, and my brother Adam, up early to get dressed and get a good viewing spot at the corner of Northwest Second Avenue and Ninth Street.

The Orange Blossom Classic and Parade was a holiday in black Miami back then. Women dressed in their finest, wearing corsages made from yellow chrysanthemums tied with green-and-orange satin ribbons — colors of Florida A & M College in Tallahassee (now Florida A&M University). People came from all over to watch the fast-stepping Marching 100 lead the parade down The Strip, Second Avenue’s nickname. We would attend the big game that night in the Orange Bowl.

Back then, it was the only time blacks were allowed in the stadium.

That was the scenario on that cold, crisp morning in early December 1947, when I stood up from the curb to watch the motorcyclists glide down the street, signaling the start of the parade.

Bessie stood out.

I had never seen a woman riding a motorcycle to lead the parade, her bushy hair flying under her helmet. She was the only woman in a group of about seven bikers. I watched in awe.

Years later, I interviewed Bessie, the first black woman to ride solo across America. At the time, I didn’t remember she was the same woman I’d watched when I was a child.

She was a great storyteller, telling me how she had taken several solo rides across the country — eight in total — often riding through the deep South during the Jim Crow era, a time when neither independent women nor blacks were welcome. Sometimes she found a black family who would let her stay with them. Other times, she slept at “filling stations,” as she called them.

She told me she got her first bike — a 1928 Indian Scout — when she was a teenager. She didn’t know how to ride it, but she was determined to learn.

She would later switch to Harley-Davidsons.

“I never wanted any other bike but a Harley-Davidson,” she told me, adding she had owned 27 bikes.

Bessie Stringfield, Photo Courtesy Ann Ferrar.jpg

Bessie Stringfield, who moved to Opa-locka in the early 1950s, on her Harley “Big Twin” Davidson motorcycle in Miami in the 1950s.

Photo courtesy of Ann Ferrar, biographer of Bessie Stringfield

As Bessie told me her story, I felt I had met her somewhere before. Then, she pulled out a bunch of photos.

“I remember you,” I cried out. “You used to lead the Orange Blossom Parade in Overtown.”

She smiled.

Bessie was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and was raised in Boston. She moved to Miami in 1939.

When World War II broke out, she became a U.S. Army motorcycle dispatch rider. In 1952, Bessie bought a house near Opa-locka, where I interviewed her in 1981.

She told me she had been a cook for white families for years. She then took classes to become a licensed practical nurse, and in 1959, became an LPN.

“I called her my motorcycle kid,’’ Arlene Catalano, director of Catalano’s Nurse Registry in Hialeah, told the Herald when Bessie died. She had worked for Catalano for about 20 years.

Even working as a nurse, Bessie never gave up riding. She rode her Harley from her Opa-locka home to church well into her 70s.

She once won a motorcycle race, but was denied the prize when she took off her helmet and the judges realized she was a woman.

She didn’t let that stop her — she wowed crowds by riding her Harley while standing on its seat. To the locals, Bessie was the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”

“Nice girls didn’t go around riding motorcycles in those days,” she said, smiling slyly.

In a day when women were relegated to certain roles, Bessie was labeled a lesbian because of her lifestyle as a biker. Yet Bessie loved men — young men, especially. She married six times. When I interviewed her in 1981, she was 72, single, and ready to get married again. But the man had to be no older than 36.

The last time I saw Bessie was when she called me to see her new, purple Harley. It was a beauty and she was planning to ride it to be inducted in the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Ohio. In August 1990, Bessie was honored at the opening of the Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Westerville, Ohio. She had her picture taken with Jay Leno.

While at the museum, Bessie met journalist Ann Ferrar, author of the book, “Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road.”

The two became close friends, and remained so until Bessie’s death at age 81 in 1993. She died in Opa-locka.

In 2002, nine years after her death, Bessie was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in Pickerington, Ohio.

The New York Times recently started writing obituaries about the many “remarkable people” that the newspaper overlooked, as many of the obituaries, dating to its founding in 1851, were primarily of white men The series, called “Overlooked,’’ features many prominent people.

Bessie Beatrice White Stringfield is one of them.

Women honored

Congratulations to the four women who will be honored at the 23rd Annual Breaking the Glass Ceiling Awards Luncheon at 11:30 a.m. April 7 at the FIU/Jewish Museum of Florida, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The honorees, who were recognized on International Women’s Day are, Susan Brustman, Michele Oka Doner, Mera Rubell, and Elizabeth Schwartz. They will join a early 100 Breaking the Glass Ceiling honorees to date. For tickets and more information, call the museum at 305-672-5044.

Alzheimer’s support group

Christ the King Lutheran Church/Pinecrest Alzheimer’s Support Group meets from 10:30 a.m. to noon on the second Thursday of the month at Christ the King Lutheran Church in the Red Room, 11295 SW 57th Ave. in Pinecrest. The Alzheimer’s Association Southeast Florida Chapter and its trained facilitators conduct the sessions. The sessions are free.

The support group helps to develop a support system, exchange practical information on caregiving challenges and possible solutions, talk through ways of coping and learn about community resources.

Lecture on Israel

The community is invited to hear a lecture by Arieh King, director and founder of the Israel Land Fund, at 7:30 p.m. April 4 at Temple Emanu-El , 1701 Washington Ave. in Miami Beach.

In October, King was elected to his second term on the Jerusalem City Council, where he works for the rights of Jews to live and travel with equal treatment in every part of the Holy City. He also works to strengthen the Jewish presence in Eastern Jerusalem, where nearly 200,000 Jews live alongside approximately 230,000 Arabs. Call the temple at 305-538-2503, ext. 221 for more information.

Affordable housing on agenda

On Monday, more than 1,500 people are expected to attend PACT’s Annual Nehemiah Community Action Assembly at New Birth Baptist Church, 2300 NW 135th St.

The meeting will address affordable housing, gun violence and municipal IDs. PACT is one of the largest grassroots, faith-based organizations in South Florida and represents more than 50,000 people from 40 churches, synagogues, universities and one mosque. Call Julia Montejo or Paul Campbell at 305-572-6012.

Vivaldi on tap

The Civic Chorale of Greater Miami and the MDC Chamber Singers will present Vivaldi’s “Gloria: A Journey to Joy” at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, 3220 NW Seventh Ave. in Allapattah, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 7. at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 14260 Old Cutler Road.

The choir will be accompanied by Matthew Steynor on the pipe organ. Tickets are $5 each and are available at the door.

Church garage sale

St. Basil Catholic Church. 1475 NE 199th St. in North Miami Beach, will have its annual garage sale from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 6, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, April 7. Items for sale will include clothes for adults and children; toys; linens; books; jewelry, and homemade baked goods. The Rev. Ed Kakaty is the pastor. Call the church at 786-320-5125.

Scottish talk

Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, 3010 De Soto Blvd., will present the Rev. John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland, who will speak from 9:45 to 10:45 a.m. Sunday. His topic will be a “Personal Spirituality: One to One.” At the 11 a.m. worship service, Bell will preach on “The Missing Link.” All are welcome.

World War II and moviemaking

The “Monday at the Museum” series will present “Jews, Britain, and American Moviemaking During World War II” at 7 p.m. Monday at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave. in Miami Beach.

Michael Berkowitz will discuss the role that Jews played in the American movie business and how Hollywood largely ignored them during WWII. The lecture will be accompanied by film clips from the period. The event is free to members and $5 for non-members.

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About Craig Ballantyne 18709 Articles
I love anything to do with Harley Davidson and have two beautiful children and a beautiful partner. In my spare time i like building websites and love anything to do with the internet.

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