James McLaurin, member of famed Tuskegee Airmen; at 87

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / May 28, 2010

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When World War II hit, 21-year-old Roxbury machinist James Wardell McLaurin joined the Tuskegee Airmen and became one of 994 black aviators for the Army Air Corps who endured discrimination in America even though they fought the Nazis.

Mr. McLaurin of Weymouth, a retired lieutenant colonel and former assistant regional director of the Small Business Administration, died May 18 at Massachusetts General Hospital of cancer. He was 87.

“We didn’t know we were making history in those days,’’ said his fellow Tuskegee Airman Dr. Harold May on Tuesday outside Trinity Church in Boston, where five Tuskegee Airman attended Mr. McLaurin’s funeral.

All in their 80s now, the airmen slowly rose from a pew at Trinity and gave a final salute to their comrade.

Fewer than 75 Tuskegee pilots are living today.

The Tuskegee Airmen escorted bomber planes on missions and their military achievements are often cited as a factor behind President Truman’s decision to end racial segregation in the military in 1948.

In 2007, Mr. McLaurin and other surviving Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal.

He rarely spoke about his World War II experiences, his family said.

Born in Newport News, Va., Mr. McLaurin moved to Boston as a boy. He loved airplanes as a youth and started flying as a teenager, his family said.

After World War II, he was discharged in 1946 and spent 10 years in the reserves assigned to Otis Air Force Base. He worked in the Boston Navy Yard as a ship mechanic and later an administrator before going to work for the Small Business Administration.

“Jim McLaurin is the type of person who did more things for other people by accident than most people do in their lifetime on purpose,’’ said his childhood friend Jay Arrow of Carver, who said Mr. McLaurin helped him earn promotions in the Navy Yard.

“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for people like me in those days,’’ said Arrow, a Native American.

“Doors were closing in my face all the time. He gave me my big break.’’

Mr. McLaurin was remembered for his infectious smile as well as his love of jazz clubs and Cape Verdean cooking.

He quietly carried his experiences of racial discrimination without bitterness, friends and family said.

“He wasn’t a prejudiced guy. He always reached out and he never let his experience change the way he dealt with people. His friends were black and white and whatever,’’ said his grandson Mark Bailey of Quincy.

“My father was murdered when I was young,’’ Bailey said, “so to have a guy like him around to talk to you about being a man was great. I carry a lot of things he told me about being a father, being smart enough to always complete what you start, and to never give up even when you make mistakes.’’

Mr. McLaurin married Helen Willis in the 1940s. They raised their two daughters in Rockland and divorced after 30 years of marriage.

His family said Mr. McLaurin brought the Harlem Globetrotters to the South Shore to foster better race relations and founded a program with attorney F. Lee Bailey to teach piloting skills and aircraft appreciation to urban and suburban youths.

“He was funny. He was very easygoing. He was sweet. He was extremely generous to others,’’ said his daughter Karen McLaurin-Chesson of Providence.

Mr. McLaurin loved Martha’s Vineyard and was a regular presence in Oak Bluffs for many decades. He served on the board of the town’s Elderly Affairs Council.

During one summer four years ago in Oak Bluffs, he met then-Senator Barack Obama, who asked him about his Tuskegee experiences. Obama made good on his promise to bring Mr. McLaurin to the White House if elected president. Mr. McLaurin attended Obama’s inauguration “with bells on,’’ his grandson said. “He was cold, but he was out there.’’

Mr. McLaurin helped many local minority businesses through his work at the SBA. “It’s no joke he made millionaires,’’ his daughter Karen said.

After he retired from the SBA, Mr. McLaurin opened his own small business, East Bay Marine, which ferried supplies to crews working on the Big Dig tunnel projects.

In 1989, the Massachusetts Port Authority declared that the East Boston Pier he rented was unsafe and ordered him to leave. Mr. McLaurin’s supporters blamed union politics for forcing him out.

He eventually gave up his business and spent his later years assisting neighbors at the Weymouthport condo complex where he lived.

During services at Trinity Church, where he was a member for two decades, Mr. McLaurin was remembered as an American hero who was more than happy to fix leaky faucets, shave down sticky doors for his neighbors, and drive people to doctor’s appointments.

“Jim knew how to help people in all kinds of ways,’’ the Rev. David Dill said.

In addition to his daughter and grandson, Mr. McLaurin leaves another daughter, Sheila Jane Bailey of Hyde Park; another grandson; and several nieces and nephews. Burial was in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.