Rampant Racism Couldn’t Stop Bessie Stringfield

Bessie Stringfield

Bessie Stringfield‘s inspiring story is one of resilience and perseverance. Her ability to recognize what brought her the most joy very early on in life is truly what sets her apart. When Stringfield was 19, she became the first African-American woman to ride a motorcycle across the United States. She embarked on this journey solo during World War II when paved roads were few, and danger for people of color was plentiful. Still, this didn’t stop Bessie from cross-country journeying the U.S., Europe, Haiti and Brazil all while fearlessly facing the discrimination that was alive and thriving under Jim Crow laws.  And with rampant racism still prevailing, Stringfield found a sense of freedom in riding. She lived by a simple philosophy, What I did was fun, and I loved it,” and told journalist and author Ann Ferrar,“When I get on the motorcycle I put the Man Upstairs on the front. I’m very happy on two wheels.” It was and still is clear that no one could rob this literal trailblazer of the joy that touring on her Harley-Davidson motorcycle brought her.

This courageous woman was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1911. Both her Jamaican father and Dutch mother died when she was five from smallpox. She was later adopted by an Irish woman who bought Stringfield her first motorcycle. As a self-taught motorcyclist, she earned money by performing stunts at carnival shows. In her lifetime, Bessie owned 27 motorcycles and her legacy remains celebrated. In 2002, she was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. It is her ability to stay the course and fight for what she believed in that will continue to be celebrated forever.

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