The Extraordinary Story of Black Librarian Belle da Costa Greene

In a centenary celebration of its expansion into a public institution, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City will present an exhibition dedicated to its most essential representative and inaugural director, Belle da Costa Greene. Born in 1879, Greene was known for her deft and vivacious commentary, fierce negotiation skills, and a personal life shrouded in secrecy as a White-passing Black woman maneuvering through segregated America.

Opening this coming October and on view until May 2025, Belle da Costa Greene: A Librarian’s Legacy examines the scholar’s personal and professional life, including her work developing the financier J. Pierpont Morgan’s collection of rare and pre-16th-century books and prints through archival documents, correspondence, and educational history.

Greene was born in Washington, DC, to Black parents under the name Belle Marion Greener. Her father, Richard T. Greener, was not only the first Black graduate of Harvard University but also the first Black diplomat representing the United States overseas. When her parents split, Greene’s mother, Genevieve Ida Fleet, changed the family surname to Greene and assigned the middle name da Costa to connote a Portuguese ancestry as the rationale for the family’s deeper complexion as they began to pass as White on census records.

Greene enrolled in Amherst College’s six-week Library Economy program in 1900 and worked for the Princeton University Library in 1902 before being introduced to J. P. Morgan’s nephew, who orchestrated the meeting that led to her employment as Morgan’s personal librarian.

Erica Ciallela, the exhibition project curator at the Morgan, told Hyperallergic that she learned a lot about Greene as a person while processing the librarian’s papers in preparation for the show. “What at first seemed to be simply correspondence tied to the library turned out to be so much more,” Ciallela said, explaining how Greene’s business-related letters often expanded on her relationship to the recipients as well as elements of her personality and interests.

Greene’s seamless transition into New York City’s social and academic scene also aided her recognition as a formidable negotiator and collector. Ciallela stated that the most iconic acquisition Greene spearheaded that really put the Library on the map was the singular copy of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), printed by English publisher William Caxton on the earliest form of a printing press introduced in Britain. Philip Palmer, curator and department head of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan, highlighted Greene’s expertise in medieval illustrations and manuscripts as demonstrated by her 1916 acquisition of the coveted Old Testament miniatures from 13th-century France.

After J. P. Morgan’s death, Greene was reportedly instrumental in swaying his son into converting the iconic literary and art collection into a public institution — leading to her appointment as the celebrated director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1924 until her retirement in 1948. Despite her advocacy for public access to critical literary and artistic contributions, Greene herself was profoundly private and burned a majority of her diaries before her death.

“There are few answers to the questions that people ask most frequently about Belle Greene,” Palmer told Hyperallergic, addressing the public’s desire to understand the librarian’s perceptions of her family dynamics, her place in society, and race relations in America.

“But she clearly had conflicted feelings about not only her identity but also how she wanted to be remembered,” Palmer continued. “Perhaps these writings, which were willfully destroyed for a good reason, may have answered some of the questions about Belle Greene, but we will never know, and you really have to respect and appreciate the way she exercised her agency in making sure parts of her story were never told.”

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