Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable women.
Somewhere between myth, memory and motorcycles, Bessie B. Stringfield was great.
In the 1950s, when women were relegated to housework, either in marriage or as domestics, Stringfield was married several times and worked as a maid yet revved and roared through Florida’s palm-tree-lined streets on her Harley-Davidson, earning the unofficial title of “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”
Her legend was big enough to warrant a posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame of the American Motorcyclist Association in 2002, nearly a decade after her 1993 death. Hundreds of women motorcyclists make an annual cross-country trek in her honor. She has been memorialized in a comic book and mentioned in a documentary and a book about women motorcyclists by Ann Ferrar, a friend who is also working on a memoir of her friendship with Stringfield.
A masterful storyteller, Stringfield amazed people with her accounts of being chased off the road as she traveled through the Jim Crow South; performing stunts on the Wall of Death at carnivals; and serving as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider for the U.S. Army in the 1940s. Her childhood, in her telling, was Dickensian: born in Jamaica to an interracial couple; left motherless at a young age; abandoned by her father on a Boston street; and adopted by a benevolent Irish Catholic woman who treated her so well that she gave her a motorcycle when she was 16 years old.
Robert Scott Thomas, now 72, was a little boy when Stringfield worked as a housekeeper for his family. He recalled thinking her stories were unbelievable, but said, “I don’t think she ever told me a lie. It was the dead-nuts right.”
Thomas was named the beneficiary and the executor of her estate in her will; after all, she apparently had no survivors.
From a nursing home in Baltimore, Esther Bennett, 86, had a different version. “She lied. Her mother’s name was Maggie Cherry. Her father was James White.”
They were both black American and lived in Edenton, N.C., according to Bennett, Stringfield’s niece. Records confirmed her account.
“I don’t know anything about Jamaican. She was never adopted,” Bennett said.
She did not know how Bessie Beatrice White Stringfield, small-town Southerner, came to be Bessie B. Stringfield, big-city Jamaican.
Several websites, including Forgotten Newsmakers, Blackpast.org and Timeline, say she was born Betsy Leonora Ellis in February 1911 in Kingston, Jamaica, to Maria Ellis and James Ferguson, with no explanation for how Betsy became Bessie. Her death certificate said she was born in March 1911 in Kingston to James Richard White and M. Cherry, a conclusion drawn by an attorney for her estate. According to a Social Security index, she was born in March 1912.
In Stringfield’s tales, she always came out on top by proving herself or by finding common ground. She told people that she won over a white Miami police officer by demonstrating her riding skills. She told people that she was followed through back roads by an angry white mob, yet she outran them and then found a kind white gas station owner who allowed her to fill up her tank free. There was also folklore passed from one generation of relatives to the next that Stringfield had worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and perhaps, she had disappeared to protect them.
The stories were outrageous enough to ring true. Only Stringfield knew if they really were.
Ferrar had passed on some of the misinformation of Stringfield’s early life, wanting to keep her legacy alive. Asked recently about these untruths, Ferrar wrote in an email, “Bessie’s running from her early past does not discount or in any way lessen her unusual achievements as an adult, and that is why Bessie continues to inspire new generations, and rightfully so.”
“She asked me to tell her truth as her friend,” Ferrar said in an interview.
Her lasting power was in her presence, especially in the eyes of children, during a period when seeing a black woman commanding a Harley-Davidson was unprecedented.
Bennett and her brothers remembered how their aunt would whirl in and out of Baltimore where they lived. Their mother was Mary Louise White Skinner, one of Stringfield’s older sisters. They described their aunt as worldly and wily.
“I was knee high to a duck. She would never tell nobody what her business was,” said Robert Irving Skinner, 74, a nephew.
David Skinner, 76, another nephew, said their mother would yell at Stringfield, “Get those boys off that bike!”
“She would stand up on that bike with one foot on the seat and one foot on the handlebars,” he said, laughing in a phone interview.
Bennett was once so rattled by a ride with Stringfield that she refused to get back on. “She jumped the track. I took a car back. She gave me car fare.”
Motorcycle riding was unladylike by societal norms in the early 20th century, and the family elders did not approve, said Jackie Reid, 70, the daughter of one of Stringfield’s half sisters, who added that they were also worried about her safety.
There was an argument in the 1950s that the children were not privy to, and Stringfield did not visit again.
“The last they heard from her was she was in Florida,” Reid said. “She was a wanderer.”
Marriage records show Stringfield spent some time in Indiana. And 1945 census records show that she claimed Massachusetts as her birthplace, but she also said she had been born around 1918.
In the 1950s, she finally settled down in Miami, first working as a domestic and later becoming a certified nursing assistant.
She befriended the families that employed her, making an outsized impression on Robert Scott Thomas and Tom Thomas, who were in elementary school in the early 1950s.
Their mother, delayed or forgetful, failed to pick them up from school one day, so Stringfield came to the rescue. “We found Bessie out there on her Harley and in her leather jacket,” said Tom Thomas, 70.
Both jumped on the motorcycle with her. “I was just a little kid so I was only wrapped around half of her,” Robert Scott Thomas said. “I could feel the heat from the exhaust on my leg.”
“All the kids were going crazy,” he said.
Bea Hines, a columnist at The Miami Herald, wrote a profile of Stringfield in 1981. She made for a colorful interview, sharing her feats and her preference for men many years her junior. She claimed to have married six of them.
Hines also had a personal connection, remembering how Stringfield would lead a pack of motorcyclists, all men, in an annual parade. “I can remember being in awe of this beautiful black woman with this big bushy hair under her helmet,” she said.
Susan Beachy contributed research.