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April 16, 2024 6 mins

Starting in the 1930s, this adventurous Black woman toured the U.S., performed stunts, and served her country on motorcycles. Learn more in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/bessie-stringfield.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, the production of iHeartRadio. Hey, brain Stuff,
Lauren Vogelbaum. Here in the United States today, only about
twenty percent of motorcycle owners are women, and even that's
a dramatic rise in ownership over the past decade or so.
But nearly a century ago, a black woman was paving
the way. If you'll forgive the pun for other women riders,

(00:25):
Bessie Stringfield in the nineteen thirties, a time when women
hadn't even had the right to vote for very long,
Stringfield toured the country riding solo and supported herself performing
stunts along the way. Not much as known about her
early childhood, as she was born in nineteen eleven in
the American southeast, perhaps North Carolina. She received her first

(00:47):
motorcycle from her mother at age sixteen, a nineteen twenty
eight Indian scout, though she didn't yet know how to
ride before the article. This episode is based on how
Stuff Work. Spoke with Anne Farrar, a journalist and the
author of springfields biography titled African American Queen of the Road.
Farar said quote, God taught her how to ride in

(01:07):
a dream. However, she learned it wouldn't have been easy.
A nineteen twenty eight scout probably weighed over seven hundred
pounds or three hundred kilos, and Stringfield was only about
five to five that's around one point six meters tall.
You have to be pretty fit to handle a bike
that big, especially when you don't have the leverage that
a little bit more height gives you. But in nineteen thirty,

(01:29):
at the age of nineteen, Stringfield took off on that
scout on her first solo tour, a ride without any
route or destination plan. She tossed a coin over a
map and rode to the location where it landed. And
she did this without the benefit of today's interstate highway
systems of neatly paved roads, and nor did she have
roadside service. If something broke down. She had to be

(01:51):
both rider and mechanic and contend with that heavy scout
on gravel and sand. At the time, it was very
rare for women to ride, and she was a black
woman transversing the Jim Crow South pre civil rights era.
Ferrar said that Stringfield faced discrimination along the way and
was turned away from motels and forced to sleep on

(02:11):
her bike instead. Neither easy nor comfortable She was threatened
on occasion, and one time was intentionally run off the
road by a white man in a pickup truck. Ferar
said the Bessie's superpower was her ability to not focus
on struggle, but rather in how she reacted to each
situation and each individual. Bessie was too modest to see
herself as particularly special. That first ride at age nineteen

(02:36):
was only the beginning of her two wheeled independence. Between
the nineteen thirties and her death in nineteen ninety three,
a Stringfield wound up riding solo across the United States
in eight separate trips, the first woman to ever do so.
She supported herself by performing motorcycle stunts at fairs, including
the Wall of Death, in which a large wooden cylinder

(02:56):
is constructed and while viewers watch from the top, motor
cyclists ride so fast that they climbed the vertical walls.
Stringfield also competed in flat track races, riding over oval
dirt tracks. One story recounts how she was denied prize
money after removing her helmet and revealing that she was
a woman. She even used her riding talents and service

(03:17):
to her country, a country that was still segregated as
a civilian courier in the early nineteen forties. During World
War Two, she carried mail and documents between bases for
the US Army. She was the only woman in an
all black unit. By the nineteen fifties, Stringfield settled in Miami,
where she became a licensed practical nurse and founded the
Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. She was known around town for

(03:39):
riding her bike to work in church, though, according to
a feature in the June nineteen ninety six issue of
American Motorcyclist magazine, she was initially given a hard time
by local police. She went to see the Captain, who
challenged her to a series of tricks and figure eights,
which she performed with ease. Stringfield got her license and

(03:59):
the her rassment stopped. She eventually became known as the
motorcycle Queen of Miami. During her six decades of riding,
Stringfield owned twenty seven Harley Davidson motorcycles and rode more
than a million miles, hitting all forty eight of the
continental United States, a plus one on motorcycle trips in Brazil, Europe,
and Haiti. While Stringfield may not appear to have had

(04:21):
a direct influence on the civil rights movement, she perhaps
unknowingly empowered those around her. Ferrar said Bessie made an
impression on people in her community, who were proud of
her and always pleased to see this independent black woman
on a Harley riding around town. A. Ferrara met Stringfield
in nineteen ninety at the American Motorcycle Association's Motorcycle Heritage Museum.

(04:41):
Stringfield was seventy nine years old and part of the
inaugural exhibit Women in Motorcycling, and Farrar was then a
newly minted biker. The two women became friends, and Stringfield
asked Ferrar to write her biography. Ferrar recorded numerous conversations
with Stringfield during her final three years so she could
help others recognize her achievements. In the year two thousand,

(05:03):
the American Motorcycle Association began giving the Bessie Stringfield Award
to women leaders in motorcycling, and in two thousand and two,
Bessie was inducted posthumously into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
The writer of the article that this episode is based on,
Sherise Cunningham, is a woman motorcyclist herself I don't ride.
The things in this episode about the physical difficulty of

(05:25):
writing are from her. I wanted to end this one.
Quoting Scherise on why she wrote this piece, she said
Stringfield was a rule breaker, an icon, an adventurer, a
free spirit who managed to live her life on her
own terms. I never gave much consideration to the fact
that had it not been for the bravery and boldness
of someone like Stringfield, I might not be able to

(05:47):
zip around relatively unscathed on America's highways as a woman.
Learning her story has made an indelible impression on me,
and I don't think I'll ever be able to sit
astride my Harley again without thinking of all she gave me.
Countless other women of any race who enjoy riding with
knees in the wind. Today's episode is based on the

(06:10):
article Hidden History on two Wheels, The Story of Bessie
Springfield on HowStuffWorks dot com, written by Shrees Cunningham. Brainstuff
is a production of iHeartRadio in partnership with how stuffworks
dot Com and is produced by Tyler Klang. For more
podcasts from Myheartradio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or
wherever you listen to your favorite shows

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