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J.P. Morgan's Personal Librarian, Belle Greene, Passed As White To Avoid Racism and Segregation.

History is full of surprises. Some interesting, some unusual, and some enlightening.

Belle Greene, Librarian

Belle Greene, Librarian

Early Life of Belle Greene

Born to free Black parents as Belle Marion Greener in 1879 in Washington, D.C. Her parents were Richard and Geneviene Greener. Her father was the first black graduate of Harvard University in 1870. He worked as a lawyer and professor while her mother taught music. After her parents separated, light-skinned Belle and her mother and siblings seized the opportunity to pass as white. This was still a segregated and racist world. They would distance themselves from their father who said he would not support his children after age eighteen.

Her mother changed her maiden name to Van Vliet, while Belle replaced the name Marion with Da Costa to accent a Portuguese background and dropped the 'r' from Greene.

Belle reinvented herself, avoiding racism to gain access and acceptance as white. She would cross the line over to white. By passing as white, Belle achieved a noted professional career. It was not until after her death that historian Jean Strouse discovered the birth certificate that she was black.


Belle Begins Work

In 1902, Belle, unable to afford college, began working at Princeton University, training in cataloging and reference work, developing a love and knowledge of rare books. While at Princeton, she met Julius Spencer Morgan II, and he introduced her to his uncle, J.P. Morgan. It was perfect timing as Morgan needed a personal librarian for his massive book collection. He hired Belle in 1905 and put her in charge of organizing, cataloging, and shelving his library.

Before long, J.P. Morgan, who trusted Belle completely, represented him abroad, buying and selling rare manuscripts, books, and art. Belle became known as intelligent, knowledgeable, and charismatic.

Belle was extremely successful in purchases for Morgan. She bif on seventeen highly sought-after William Caxton books and made another bid of $50,000 for a rare book. J.P. Morgan died in 1913 and left Belle $50,000 in his will so she could live comfortably. She did worry that Mogan's son, Jack, would not continue with his father's wishes. But Jack did want to continue the legacy and named the library Piermont Morgan Library for use by the public and named Belle as director.

Her vision to make the Morgan Library one of the greatest in the world propelled her to fame. Belle started as J.P. Morgan's personal librarian and then became director of the Morgan Library. She worked a total of forty-three years for the Morgans.

Belle retired in 1948 and died in 1950. She is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.


Belle Greene Bidding at Auction

Belle Greene Bidding at Auction

Morgan Library

Morgan Library

Morgan Library

Morgan Library

Entrance to Morgan Library

Entrance to Morgan Library

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Belle's Life, Fashion, and Loves

Over the years Belle was the perfection of charm, intelligence, and flamboyant fashion. Reporters often asked Belle about her dress. Belle replied:

  • "I am a librarian, but I don't have to dress like one."

Belle never married, perhaps because she thought about how her past could come to bite her if she had children. Rumors suggest Belle had several liaisons, one longer with married Bernard Berenson, an art critic sharing a lot in common. She was thought to have an affair with a Norweigan count, a British duke but records are scant.

Belle's life has been challenging to prove as she burned all her personal records shortly before she died. However, her lengthy letters to Berenson were kept by his wife and are housed at the Morgan Library.


Belle Greene

Belle Greene

Fashionable Belle Greene

Fashionable Belle Greene

Morgan Library And Museum

The Morgan Library And Museum is at 225 Madison Ave., New York, 212-685-0008. Thousands of books, manuscripts, art, and artifacts are meticulously shelved and exhibited. The Library holds lectures, displays exhibits, gives publications and offers research opportunities.

The Library created a Fellowship in the name of Belle Da Costa in her honor. Belle was the first person of color and the second woman to be elected as a fellow in 1939.

There are several books about Belle Greene, one by authors Benedict and Arnold, The Personal Librarian. Another, The Illuminated Life of Belle Greene, by author Heidi Anderson.

Book, The Personal Librarian

Book, The Personal Librarian

Sources Used

https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch

https://www.kirkreviews.com

https://www.themorgan.orgbelle-greene

https://www.history.net/belle

https://en/wikipedia.org/bellegreene

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