McGirt attended the Allen Private School for African Americans and later Greensboro public schools. In 1895, he earned a BA from Bennett College.
McGirt worked as a manual laborer until 1903, when he moved to Philadelphia and launched McGirt’s Magazine. As editor and publisher, McGirt featured his own prose and poetry “urging race advancement along with writings by prominent African Americans.” After six successful years the monthly declined, and McGirt ended its publication in 1909. Returning to Greensboro the following year, he established the successful Star Hair Grower Manufacturing Company and a realty business.
James wrote hundreds of poems on topics ranging from the Spanish-American War to slavery, discrimination, love, nature, and boyhood. McGirt also wrote dialect verse and poems formally influenced by 18th- and 19th-century British and American poetry.
Neither McGirt nor any of his three siblings ever married.