Bessie Stringfield: “Negro Motorcycle Queen” Inductee in Motorcycle Hall of Fame

2 Posted by - June 8, 2018 - Black First, BLACK WOMEN, LATEST POSTS

was the first African American woman to ride her across the United States by herself. She is known for breaking down barriers for both women and African-American motorcyclists.

She was born Betsy Lenora Ellis on February 9, 1911, in Kingston Jamaica, to a domestic servant Maria Ellis and Ellis’s employer James Ferguson. Betsy Ellis became an orphan at the age of 5-years-old. However, she was adopted to a wealthy Irish woman who raised her as a Catholic. There are no records as to when her name changed from Betsy to Bessie.

On her 16th birthday she received her very first motorcycle, even though good girls were not supposed to ride motorcycles. She climbed on her first bike in 1927 which was an Indian Scout. She had no training on how to ride, nor did she know much about operating the controls. But, she started the bike and easily mastered it. By the early 1940’s, Ellis had made eight long-distance solo rides throughout the United States. During this time she was earning money for performing various motorcycle stunts in carnival shows.

The color of her skin held her back though, she was frequently denied accommodations while traveling and had to sleep on her motorcycle at gasoline stations. She worked for the U.S. Army during World War II as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider. She often carried documents between domestic bases on her Harley –Davidson bike. She was the only woman in her unit, and she completed strenuous training maneuvers. She mastered how to weave a makeshift bridge from rope and tree limbs to cross swamps. It was nothing for her to encounter racial prejudice while traveling on the road on her missions. She was once followed by a man in a pickup truck who on purposely ran her off the road and into a ditch, where she fell violently off her bike.

Ellis, however, did find time for marriage through her traveling. She married and was divorced 6 times. The loss of three babies with her first husband ended with her not having any children of her own. After the divorce to her third husband, Arthur Stringfield, she decided to keep his last name because he wanted him to make his last name famous, and that she did.

The early 1950’s was the end of Stringfield’s motorcycle odysseys. She purchased a house in Miami, Florida, in the suburbs and became a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). She kept riding her bike, but locally, and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. She disguised herself as a man, and won a local motorycycle race but was denied the prize money when she took off her helmet. She performed other antics such as riding her Harley while standing in its saddle, which attracted local press attention. The press called Stringfield, “Negro Motorcycle Queen” which later became “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”

In 1990 when the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) opened the first Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Pickerington, Stringfield was featured in its inaugural exhibit on Women in Motorcycling. Late in life, Stringfield suffered from symptoms caused by an enlarged heart. She died in Opalaka, Florida, in 1993 at the age of eighty-two. A decade later, the AMA instituted the Bessie Stringfield Award to honor women who are leaders in motorcycling. In 2002 she was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

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  • Lea August 18, 2015 - 9:42 pm Reply

    HBO did a great job casting Queen Latifah as Bessie. Very interesting woman and yet another example to the youth today of dedication, commitment and success (in her own right). I love your site. I learn so much here to share with my kids.

  • Airmond J Stanford June 8, 2018 - 4:15 pm Reply

    Great article as all of your articles, must say I was unaware of her or her history, thanks for the information.

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