Passport to Adventure: Bessie Stringfield

Passport to Adventure – our series highlighting bold women who defied expectations throughout history – is back! This month we’re highlighting Bessie Stringfield, the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami” on National Motorcycle Ride Day! 

Bessie Stringfield (born 1911) was an American motorcyclist who was the first African-American woman to ride across the United States solo, and was one of the few civilian motorcycle dispatch riders for the US Army during World War II. Credited with breaking down barriers for both women and African-American motorcyclists, Stringfield was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. The award bestowed by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) for “Superior Achievement by a Female Motorcyclist” is named in her honor.

Full illustration of Bessie Stringfield by Ashley Hay for Tomb Raider's Passport to Adventure series

At the age of 16 Stringfield taught herself to ride her first motorcycle, a 1928 Indian Scout. By 1930, at the age of 19, she was travelled across the United States and made seven long-distance trips in the US, and eventually rode through the 48 lower states, Europe, Brazil and Haiti. 

This accomplishment is especially remarkable considering that the odds of Stringfield participating in any activity as liberating as independently traveling the country were absolutely against her. The civil rights movement would not begin until Stringfield was already well into her travels, and she faced immense amounts of discrimination along her journey. As told through Ferrar in Stringfield’s biography, Jim Crow laws and racial prejudice prevented her from being able to stay at most motels.

To earn a living as she traveled, Stringfield entertained at carnival sideshows with stunt acts including the Wall of Death, in which motorcyclists zoom sideways along the walls of a wooden bowl-shaped arena and glide nearly (or actually) upside-down in spherical cages. She competed for monetary prizes in flat-track races, where motorcyclists race over dirt oval tracks. She would often times enter races and events while disguising herself as a man, but the moment it was revealed that a woman had beat all of the men competitors, she was denied her fair prizes and compensation.

During World War II, Stringfield opted to serve as a civilian courier and rode her own blue 61 cubic inch Harley-Davidson. At this time, she trained amongst predominantly Black men, while still teaching and training herself to devise makeshift ways that would allow her to travel on her motorcycle, such as DIY bridges with tree limbs and rope to navigate shallow bridges over shallow waters.

After settling down in the 1950s, she continued her two-wheeled legacy as a nurse. However, she was met with disdain and pushback as a Black femme working with what was then aligned with the police. After multiple denials of a license, she demanded a meeting with the police chief in Miami, who was also a motorcycle enthusiast. After taking her to a park, asking her to perform an array of challenging tricks, and seeing her land them all flawlessly, there was no question as to if she was cut out for the job. This challenge and triumph is what landed her the name “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami”.

In 1990 the American Motorcycle Association paid tribute to Bessie in their inaugural “Heroes of Harley-Davidson” exhibition thanks to her collection. During her six decades of riding, Stringfield owned 27 Harley Davidson motorcycles. 

Before her passing she cheerfully did interviews about her life once it became more widespread and women cyclists gained more interest in her story. She sadly passed in 1993 at age 82 due to an ‘enlarged heart’ and thus heart complications-but she was seen riding on her motorcycle and embracing life up until her last breaths.

For more info about Bessie Stringfield’s journeys and efforts, you can read “Bessie Stringfield, the Bad-Ass Black Motorcycle Queen of the 1930s” by Natalie Zarrelli along with “Bessie Stringfield – Bikers You Should Know” by Bryan Wood.

Check out this video as well, with a summary of who Bessie Stringfield is and her legacy by Ann Ferrar: