Ever heard of Bessie B. Stringfield? Most likely not. Stringfield was an African American motorcycle enthusiast who flouted Jim Crow segregation and sexism when she hopped on her bike in the 1930s and took a tour of all 48 contiguous states of the Union.
Her story is a solid metaphor for black bike culture: a story that is equal parts fierce individualism and a quest for a life without boundaries but which also points to a legacy that has largely existed in history's shadows.
"Black Chrome," a new exhibition jointly produced by the California African American Museum and the Automobile Club of Southern California, delves into this rich and colorful story of African American riders, designers, mechanics and motorcycle clubs up and down the California coast.
Just after World War II, black Californians began carving out their unique take on bike culture through design, riding styles, racing and riding tricks. The exhibition spotlights innovators such as Ben Hardy, who designed the Captain America and the Billy Bike featured in "Easy Rider," and explores the history of all-black clubs such as Buffalo Soldiers, LA Defiant Ones, East Bay Dragons, the Magnificent Seven and Rare Breed.
Alongside historic and contemporary photos, restored and custom bikes also will be on view -- all of it puzzle pieces that help to complete the picture of California's idiosyncratic history of the road. The show runs through April 12. Info: (213) 744-7432.
-- Lynell George