Bessie Stringfield, motorcyclist (1911-1993)
Imagine being a African-American woman motorcyclist riding in the 1930’s around a deeply divided segregated South. Bessie Stringfield did not have to imagine it. She lived it. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1911, she migrated to Boston only to be orphaned by the age of 5. An Irish woman adopted her and gave the courageous young girl her first motorcycle, while she was in high school. Bessie did not use the name of her adopted Irish mother. She would tell people, “I am not allowed to use it.” At 16 years old, Bessie sat on a 1928 Indian Scout. She had no training at all but her natural gift for riding proved useful.
Bessie is said to have been given the skills to operate the bike because of her relationship with God. She credited “the Man Upstairs” and only Him for showing her how to manipulate the controls. As she put it, “When I get on the motorcycle I put the Man Upstairs on front.” Bessie’s faith carried her through many challenges, she attributed Catholic beliefs and a supportive adoptive mother as her main source of strength.
In Bessie’s lifetime she owned 27 Harleys, traveled to 48 states, rode eight solo cross-country tours, served in the U.S. Army as a motorcycle dispatch rider, became a licensed practical nurse, founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club and once (disguised as a man) she won a flat track race in Miami, FL. Upon removing her helmet, she was denied the prize money but her appetite for life did not go without notice. The press dubbed Bessie as the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”
Personally, she suffered the tragic loss of three children and true to her outgoing nature Bessie married and divorced six times. After over 60 years of riding, Bessie Stringfield died in 1993. She was 82. Unwittingly, Bessie blazed a trail for other women to follow. The American Motorcycle Association (AMA) established the Bessie Stringfield Award to recognize women leaders in motorcycling. She balanced more than two wheels. Bessie managed to juggle sexism and racism with a positive, resilient spirit.
Hazel Lee [1912-1944]
Experienced women pilots, like Lee, were eager to join the WASP, and responded to interview requests by Cochran. Members of the WASP reported to Avenger Field, in wind swept Sweetwater, Texas for an arduous 6-month training program. Lee was accepted into the 4th class, 43 W 4. Hazel Ying Lee was the first Chinese American woman to fly for the United States military.
Although flying under military command, the women pilots of the WASP were classified as civilians. They were paid through the civil service. No military benefits were offered. Even if killed in the line of duty, no military funerals were allowed. The WASPs were often assigned the least desirable missions, such as winter trips in open cockpit airplanes. Commanding officers were reluctant to give women any flying deliveries. It took an order from the head of the Air Transport Command to improve the situation.
Upon graduation, Lee was assigned to the third Ferrying Group at Romulus, Michigan. Their assignment was critical to the war effort; Deliver aircraft, pouring out of converted automobile factories, to points of embarkation, where they would then be shipped to the European and Pacific War fronts. In a letter to her sister, Lee described Romulus as “a 7-day workweek, with little time off.” When asked to describe Lee’s attitude, a fellow member of the WASP summed it up in Lee’s own words, “I’ll take and deliver anything.”
Described by her fellow pilots as “calm and fearless,” Lee had two forced landings. One landing took place in a Kansas wheat field. A farmer, pitchfork in hand, chased her around the plane while shouting to his neighbors that the Japanese had invaded Kansas. Alternately running and ducking under her wing, Lee finally stood her ground. She told the farmer who she was and demanded that he put the pitchfork down. He complied.
Lee was a favorite with just about all of her fellow pilots. She had a great sense of humor and a marvelous sense of mischief. Lee used her lipstick to inscribe Chinese characters on the tail of her plane and the planes of her fellow pilots. One lucky fellow who happened to be a bit on the chubby side, had his plane dubbed (unknown to him) “Fat Ass.”
Lee was in demand when a mission was RON (Remaining Overnight) In a big city or in a small country town, she could always find a Chinese restaurant, supervise the menu, and often cook the food herself. She was a great cook. Fellow WASP pilot Sylvia Dahmes Clayton observed that “Hazel provided me with an opportunity to learn about a different culture at a time when I did not know anything else. She expanded my world and my outlook on life.”
Lee and the others were the first women to pilot fighter aircraft for the United States military.
Image (via World War II Database)
Text [click for full article] (via Wikipedia)
Bessie Coleman (1896-1926) was the first African American woman to earn an aviator’s license. Unable to find anyone willing to train a black woman to fly in the US, Bessie learned French so that she could learn to fly in France. She was the first American of any race or gender to earn an international pilot’s license.
Bessie died at age 34 during a test flight for an exhibition in Jacksonville, Florida.
Bessie is profiled in a Smithsonian Channel documentary entitled Black Wings, which is airing this month. An excerpt from the documentary can be seen here. If you are interested in black female pilots, check out the novel Flygirl.