McGirt, James E.
James E. McGirt
Poet, writer, publisher
Though he never won widespread critical acclaim as a major African American writer, James Ephraim McGirt left his mark in the literary field as a poet, fiction writer, and publisher during the first decade of the twentieth century. Then, for almost two decades, he prospered as a pioneering beauty products entrepreneur and realtor. Over time, however, failed business dealings, dissipation, and poor health took their toll on McGirt, and he died in 1930. The accolades for his literary achievements, which he longed for during his lifetime, came more than seventy years after his death. The North Carolina Writers' Network inducted McGirt into their Literary Hall of Fame in 2004, praising him as one of the earliest and greatest of North Carolina poets.
McGirt was born near Lumberton, North Carolina, a rural, Coastal Plains community in the southeastern region of the state. The month and day of McGirt's birth in 1874 are unknown. He was one of four children born to farmer Madison McGirt and his wife Ellen Townsend McGirt. Early in his life, his parents moved the family to another rural community near Rowland, North Carolina. A few years later, the McGirts moved once again, to a house in a community called Warnersville, just outside the city limits of Greensboro, North Carolina, In that more urban setting, his mother worked as a laundress and his father became a drayman. Ellen McGirt, a strong-willed, zealous Christian, proved one of the most influential figures in her son's life. She instilled in young James the vision and determination to take himself beyond the limits set for African Americans in the Jim Crow South. She isolated her children from others in their community, perhaps in an effort to thwart the potentially debilitating effects of racism. Subsequently, McGirt and his three siblings became loners; none of them ever married.
Young James attended the Allen Private School for African Americans in Lumberton and later the public schools in Greensboro. When he was not in school, he performed odd jobs to earn money. In 1892, McGirt entered Bennett College in Greensboro, at the time a coeducational, historically black college. The bright student earned his bachelor's degree in 1895 after just three years of study.
Early Published Work
McGirt began to write poetry while a student at Bennett. Four years after he graduated from college, he published his first volume of poetry, Avenging the Maine. A number of the selections in this slim volume of lyrical, and often didactic, poetry are written in the style and structure of European, British, or American verse of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. McGirt included in his volume poems in "Negro dialect," the most popular form at the time for poetry about black people. His contemporary, Paul Laurence Dunbar, ultimately became the most celebrated poet of the day through his dialect poetry. But some critics considered McGirt's dialect poetry inauthentic.
Much of McGirt's poetry dealt with pastoral images of life in the South. However, a significant number of the poems in his debut collection focused on issues of race, class, and gender. The title poem, for example, recounts the valor of black soldiers in spite of the racism they faced while serving in Cuba during the Spanish American War. Another, "Slavery," protests the denigration of African American women in bondage. "A Drunken A. B." touches on themes that would cloud McGirt's own life—unrequited love and the decline of a well-educated black man as a result of self-destructive behavior.
McGirt published a total of three editions of Avenging the Maine. The second, enlarged edition appeared in 1900 and the third in 1901. None of the editions received much critical attention. McGirt also published the volume of poetry Some Simple Songs in 1901 to mixed reviews. Two years later, the struggling writer appealed to white southern writer Thomas Nelson Page for help. "If you need a man to do anything around your house, please give me the place. Give me a trial," he wrote to Page in a letter.
Success as a Publisher
It is not known whether Page responded to the young poet's plea. By the end of 1903, however, McGirt had moved north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he established McGirt's Magazine, an illustrated monthly "race publication" featuring stories about art, science, and literature as well as articles focusing on the social and political issues that confronted African Americans. It also highlighted the accomplishments of African Americans and their institutions. McGirt's Magazine thrived for six years—an incredible feat for an independent black publication in any time period. The magazine predated by several years similar publications edited by W. E. B. Du Bois: the Moon (1905–06), Horizon (1907–10), and the NAACP's Crisis magazines (1910 to present). Du Bois may even have been inspired by McGirt's example. Du Bois once urged his Horizon readers to subscribe to McGirt's, pointing to the veracity of its content: "Not a yellow [journalism] line in it," he once wrote. McGirt expanded his publishing venture in 1905 by establishing McGirt's Publishing Company.
In 1906, McGirt published For Your Sweet Sake, his third and, arguably, best collection of poetry. One critic noted that his poem "Born Like the Pines," in particular, captured buoyancy, intensity, and a genuine lyric quality. Yet this collection barely made a ripple in the literary world. Ironically, McGirt's publishing enterprise provided the kind of opportunities for other black writers that were not offered to him. For example, over a two-year period (1907–09), he serialized historian and Pan-Africanist John Edward Bruce's work of fiction "The Black Sleuth." The magazine, therefore, introduced the world to one of the earliest works by a black writer to portray an African American detective. The Black Sleuth was later published as a novel.
McGirt published his fourth book under his own imprint in 1907. The Triumph of Ephraim, a collection of short stories, yielded no more recognition than his three collections of poetry. Two years later, McGirt's publishing company suffered hard times and closed permanently.
- Born in Roberson County near Lumberton, North Carolina
- Enrolls in Bennett College
- Earns B.A. from Bennett College
- Publishes his first volume of poetry, Avenging the Maine
- Publishes volume of poetry Some Simple Songs
- Moves north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; establishes McGirt's Magazine
- Publishes volume of poetry For Your Sweet Sake
- Publishes The Triumph of Ephraim, a collection of short stories
- Returns to the South to help support his parents; launches Star Hair Grower Manufacturing Company in Greensboro with his sister
- Leaves company to buy and sell real estate
- Dies in Greensboro, North Carolina on June 3
An Entrepreneur in Greensboro
In 1910, McGirt returned to the South to help support his parents. He launched another business in Greensboro. He and his sister bought a ten-room house and the Star Hair Grower Manufacturing Company. Over a period of eight years, the enterprise became so successful that the McGirts added a range of beauty products and distributed them to markets in the United States and elsewhere. In 1918, McGirt left the company to buy and sell real estate. Although he was successful for a time, he lost interest in his work and his business failed. None of his business endeavors ever extinguished his thirst to be a renowned poet. His excessive drinking led to poor health, and McGirt died in near obscurity in 1930. Decades later he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, and the Horton-McGirt Public Library in Greensboro is named in his honor.
Johnson, Abby Arthur, and Ronald Mayberry Johnson. Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of Afro-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
Parker, John W. "James Ephraim McGirt; Poet of 'Hope Deferred,'" The Negro History Bulletin, March 1953.
Zane, J. Peder. "Hall of Fame Inducts Fine Crop," The Raleigh News & Observer, 24 October 2004.
North Carolina Writers' Network Literary Hall of Fame, 2004 Inductees. http://www.ncwriters.org/services/lhof/induct2004.html
A short 1952 essay about McGirt by John W. Parker is included in the Richard Gaither Walser Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Manuscripts Department, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A longer article by John W. Parker written for The Negro History Bulletin is in a vertical file for McGirt in the Greensboro Public Library.
A letter from James Ephraim McGirt to Thomas Nelson Page, dated May 12, 1903, is in the Thomas Nelson Page Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.