Irish and German immigrants came to Detroit in modest numbers in the 1830s and 1840s. Many of them were young, so they quickly started their families in the small city that was then Detroit. James A. McGinnis was born in a house located near the intersection of Washington Boulevard and West Jefferson on the auspicious day of July 4, 1847. Apparently, he found Detroit disappointing so, at age 14, he ran away to join the circus. At this time, circuses were small groups of entertainers who traveled from town to town by wagon or, in some cases, by train. McGinnis quickly exhibited a talent for advertising and management. Presumably responding to the religious and ethnic prejudices of that era, he anglicanized his name and progressed into circus entrepreneurship. He soon had his own firm, the Cooper and Bailey Show. In 1880, he purchased the first elephant born in the United States, named her, "Little America" and added her to his show. The following year, James Bailey merged his show with that of the flaymboyant and ceaseless promoter, Phineas T. Barnum and thus the Barnum-Bailey Circus came into existence. It soon became the nation's largest, the first to use a three-ring format and, I believe, the first to require three separate trains to transport if from one location to the next. In 1891, Phineas Barnum died, so James Bailey managed the circus until 1906 when he sold it to Ringling Brothers. James Bailey's name lives on in the Ringling Bros Barnum-Bailey Circus. James McGinnis rose from humble origin to a position of wealth and prominence, but it was not through industry or banking. In quite a few circumstances, ethnic minorities found that entertainment, recreation and sports were more open to them when other employment options were closed.
Michigan Historical Register: P25022, Listed January 19, 1978
Marker Erected: August 7, 1978. This impressive marker is clearly visible on the east interior wall of the magnificent and gigantic lobby of Cobo Hall. It is very near an impressive picture of that impeccably addressed son of a tailor who became an extraordinarily powerful Detroit mayor: Coleman Young. There is a message here about the upward mobility of minorities.
Photo: Ren Farley, September, 2002
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