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Wed, 11.26.1879

Belle da Costa Greene, Librarian born

Belle da Costa Greene

*Belle da Costa Greene was born on this date in 1879. She was a Black librarian.

Belle da Costa Greene was born in Washington, D.C., as Belle Marion Greener. Her mother was Genevieve Ida Fleet, a music teacher and member of a well-known Black family in Washington, D.C. Her father, Richard Theodore Greener, was the first black student and first black graduate of Harvard (class of 1870). He worked as an attorney, professor, and racial justice activist who served as dean of the Howard University School of Law.

Once Greene took the job with Morgan, she likely never spoke to her father again. She may have met him in Chicago around 1913, but no written records of this meeting are known. Historians long believed that Richard Greener had lost most of his papers in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After her parents' separation, the light-skinned Belle, her mother, and her siblings passed as white and changed their surname to Greene to distance themselves from their father. Her mother changed her maiden name to Van Vliet to assume Dutch ancestry. Belle also changed her name, swapping out Marion for 'da Costa,' and began claiming a Portuguese background to explain her darker complexion.

The changes to her and her family's stated ancestry resulted in further fabrications, including one that led people to believe Greene had been raised in Virginia. Greene began working at the Princeton University Library in 1902. During this time, she was trained in cataloging and reference work and developed a growing knowledge of rare books. While working at the Princeton library, she met Junius Spencer Morgan II, who later introduced her to his financier uncle J.P. Morgan.

Greene began working as J.P. Morgan's librarian in 1905. Greene's first task as the librarian was organizing, cataloging, and shelving Morgan's collection. Ada Thurston, an experienced bibliographer, contributed to the effort as Greene's assistant. By 1908, Greene began representing Morgan abroad. Trusted for her expertise (Greene was an expert in illuminated manuscripts) and her bargaining prowess with dealers, Greene spent millions of dollars buying and selling rare manuscripts, books, and art for Morgan. She told Morgan – who was willing to pay any price for essential works – that her goal was to make his library "pre-eminent, especially for incunabula, manuscripts, bindings, and the classics."  In a 1912 profile about Greene, the New York Times called her a "force of persuasion and intelligence." It recounted her pre-auction purchase of seventeen highly sought-after William Caxton books on behalf of the Morgan Library.

She was elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 1939, only the second woman – and first known person of color – to be so honored. Following Morgan's death in 1913, Greene continued working for his son J.P. Morgan Jr. In 1924, she was named director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, following the transition of Morgan's formal personal collection to a public institution. Despite being born to Black parents, Greene spent her professional career passing for white. She retired from the position in 1948. Belle da Costa Greene, best known for managing and developing the personal library of J. P. Morgan, died on May 10, 1950.

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