FBI HISTORY: African-American Special Agent Leo James McClairen Was Unheralded Pioneer

By  //  October 28, 2019

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excelled at tracking down fugitives, military deserters and escaped prisoners

Leo James McClairen was appointed as the FBI’s first African-American agent in the city of Miami and across the entire Deep South on January 15, 1956. The next day, he was officially issued his badge, revolver, holster, handbook and briefcase.

MIAMI, FLORIDA (FBI.gov) – On January 15, 1956, the FBI office in Miami appointed its newest special agent. The next day, he was officially issued his badge, revolver, holster, handbook and briefcase.

His name was Leo James McClairen, and his selection was quietly historic. It made McClairen the FBI’s first African-American agent in the city of Miami and across the entire Deep South.

He was born a century ago, on November 16, 1919—coincidentally, three days before the first known African-American agent would submit his application to the young Bureau.

McClairen grew up in a small town in southern Georgia. He was educated through the 11th grade, attended night school for a few years, and joined the military in 1941.

McClairen served bravely during World War II, earning four service medals for his efforts in the Pacific theater. Upon returning home, he worked various jobs in Miami, mostly for local airlines.

In the summer of 1952, McClairen—by then 32 and employed by the General Services Administration—applied for a position in the FBI’s Miami Field Office and was hired as a clerk that November.

McClairen was chosen as then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s driver when he vacationed in Florida during the holiday season. Hoover, impressed by the smart and capable McClairen, wrote letters of appreciation in January 1954 and 1955. The next year, McClairen was promoted to the agent ranks.

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McClairen’s Bureau career spanned more than a quarter-century. Along the way, he earned the respect of his peers and high marks from his bosses, who praised his devotion to his work.

As an agent, McClairen handled a variety of investigative matters. His ability to build trust in communities of color made him an invaluable asset in developing informants and pursuing leads.

He especially excelled at tracking down people on the run from the law, including wanted fugitives, military deserters, and escaped prisoners.

Black and white photograph of Leo James McClairen, who became the first FBI agent in the Miami Field Office—and the Deep South—in 1956.

In one case, two U.S. Marshals had been searching unsuccessfully for a key witness in a trial. McClairen was asked to assist and found the man in just two hours. In another investigation, he received an award for his role in locating Top Ten fugitive Holice Paul Black, who fled to Miami after killing a Chicago police officer.

A team player, McClairen did a great deal to support his colleagues, contributing in ways that didn’t show up in his own statistics but buoyed the overall success of the office. That included participating in dangerous raids, conducting surveillance, and even fixing Bureau cars.

He often supported larger investigations, too. For example, in the mid-1960s, he played a key role in a racketeering probe that took down Gil “The Brain” Beckley, considered organized crime’s top bookie in the country at the time.

He also served for years as a highly regarded liaison with the Miami Police Department.

In October 1977, McClairen—nearing age 58—submitted a request for retirement.

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“It has been a source of pride to have served my country through these years with the FBI,” he wrote. “I will always value the friendships I have made here and my loyalty will ever remain with the Bureau.”

McClairen retired on December 30, 1977. He died in Miami at the age of 85 on August 4, 2005.

Through his intelligence, integrity, and hard work during a time when there were few African-American agents, Leo McClairen served as an unheralded pioneer in the FBI. He paved the way for future generations of minority investigators and professional staff.

FBI.gov