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James Ephraim McGirt

(1874—1930)


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(1874–1930), poet, editor, short story writer, and publisher.

James Ephraim McGirt was born in Robeson County, North Carolina, and brought up on a family farm. He attended public school in Greensboro, North Carolina, and in 1895 graduated from Bennett College, a Methodist institution just outside of Greensboro. In the preface to his first book, Avenging the Maine, a Drunken A.B., and Other Poems (1899), McGirt blames exhausting manual labor and a lack of leisure time for the slimness of the volume and the feebleness of the verse within it. In 1900, McGirt published an enlarged edition of his first collection of poetry and brought out in Philadelphia the next year a new collection of lyrics entitled Some Simple Songs and a Few More Ambitious Attempts. Moving to Philadelphia gave McGirt a base on which to build a career as a magazine publisher, which he launched in September 1903 with the first issue of McGirt's Magazine, an illustrated monthly that dealt with African American art, literature, science, general culture, and politics. In addition to its editor's own poetry and fiction, McGirt's Magazine also featured the work of a wide range of skilled African American writers, including articles by Anna Julia Cooper and W. E. B. Du Bois, poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and fiction by John E. Bruce and Kelly Miller. Politically, McGirt's Magazine maintained an unswerving faith in the ballot as the key to African American advancement.

In 1906, McGirt published a third volume of verse, For Your Sweet Sake. The following year The Triumphs of Ephraim, his only short story collection, appeared. In 1909, declining sales compelled McGirt to change his magazine from a monthly to a quarterly. A year later McGirt's ceased publication, its editor having decided to return to Greensboro to go into business with his sister. During the last years of his life McGirt bought property in the Greensboro area and became a successful realtor.

As a writer McGirt's contribution to African American literature was small. His poetry, a few examples of which are reprinted in Joan Sherman's African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century (1992), is technically amateurish, often sentimental, and tritely didactic. His fiction, which usually deals with romantic problems faced by idealized African Americans, attempts to portray people of color to their advantage. But despite the reprinting of The Triumphs of Ephraim in 1972, McGirt's short stories have not attracted more than the passing attention of literary historians. Only as a magazine publisher who struggled for seven years to maintain a periodical of serious literary quality and self-respecting political outlook did McGirt leave a lasting mark on the history of African American literature.

Hugh M. Gloster, Negro Voices in American Fiction, 1948.

— William L. Andrews

Subjects: Literature.


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