In honor of Women’s Equality Day (August 26), let’s celebrate the life and legacy of Belle Da Costa Greene, a trailblazing librarian who developed the collection of J.P. Morgan – now called the Morgan Library & Museum, located in New York City.

Figure 1 Belle Da Costa Greene. Theodore C. Marceau. 1911.

Belle Da Costa Greene was a Black woman born to two Black parents but was light skinned enough to “pass” as white. Greene came of age in the early 20th century and hid her identity as a Black woman to achieve success, even going so far as to invent a Portuguese grandmother to account for her olive skin tone.

Richard T Greener

Figure 2 Portrait of Richard T. Greener. Circa 1885. Harvard University Archives.

Greene was born November 26, 1879, to Richard Theodore Greener and Genevieve Ida Fleet

Greener. Her father, Richard Theodore Greener was a pioneering African-American scholar, a lawyer, and Republican party activist. He was also the first Black student to graduate from

Harvard University in 1870. Though his experience at Harvard was difficult – he was isolated and lonely as the only Black student – he managed to graduate with honors.

Bella Da Costa Green and Amherst College Classmates

Figure 3 The oldest known image of Belle Da Costa Greene (center back). Pictured here with her Amherst College classmates. Ca. 1900. Amherst College Archives. 

In 1900, Greene enrolled in a bibliography course at Amherst College’s Summer Library School. By 1902, she was a librarian-in-training at the Princeton University Library, where she learned cataloging and reference services. Greene excelled at her work and eventually caught the eye of the man who would become her first mentor, Ernest C. Richardson. He was a university librarian and bibliographer and is said to be the man who helped Greene develop her interest in rare books and manuscripts. Around this time, she met Junius Morgan, a dedicated bibliophile and the nephew of J. Pierpont Morgan, who had been advising his uncle on acquiring rare books. 

JP Morgan Library 1908

Figure 4 Façade of J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library. Circa 1908.

At the time, Pierpont Morgan’s collection consisted of mostly rare paintings, but he needed an additional librarian to help him fully expand his collection; Junius recommended Greene for the job and the rest is history. Greene used her shrewd and discerning eye to weed out unscrupulous dealers or fake objets d’art and eventually found herself at the center of a network of dealers in London, Paris, Italy, and New York. Morgan increasingly began to rely on her discerning eye, and she often traveled to other countries to collect rare items to add to Morgan’s collection.

Bella Da Costa Greene

Figure 5 Belle Da Costa Greene was known for being exceptionally fashionable. Note her mink shrug and cloche hat.

Greene’s It-Girl status led to numerous photographs of her appearing in society papers and magazine articles, accompanied by vivid descriptions of her elegant clothing. She wore fine garments made from expensive materials that were at the pinnacle of fashion: black velvet coats, lace collars, cloche hats, mink stoles, and pearls. Like many of us that participate in fashion, Greene used clothing to assert and conceal her identity. Her expensive designer wardrobe was one of the ways she was able to hide her ethnic origins. To quote Sarah Richardson in Passing Fancy, Greene employed high style as a “sword and buckler to advance.” Many articles from the period refer to Greene as a “black-haired beauty,” and that “the sight of her great plumed hats among auction bidders was enough to send auctioneers into a tizzy.”

Greene wearing a plumed hat and dress inspired by Paul Poiret

Figure 6 Greene wearing a plumed hat and dress inspired by Paul Poiret. Princeton Art Museum. 1911. Greene once famously uttered, “Just because I’m a librarian, doesn’t mean that I have to dress like one.”

Greene was able to acquire more experience and knowledge through working with local subject-specialists and curators. By 1909, she had successfully transitioned from librarian to curator of the collection of the J. Pierpont Morgan collection – an amazing feat for a woman of Greene’s age and ethnic origins! Greene also used her social standing to advocate for underpaid librarians (mostly women) and library workers in New York City. She rightly argued that “the result of these low salaries is, of course, that the women who are capable of filling the responsible positions are not willing to take them.”

Newspaper Article

Figure 7 “$10,000 Librarian Speaks a Word for $400 Sisters.” New York Tribune. November 22, 1913.

Greene retired in November 1943 after 43 years of developing and maintaining the Pierpont

Morgan collection and 25 years serving as the executive head. Her contribution to the world of scholarship and librarianship earned her honors from Belgium, France, and Italy. Her legacy, the

The Morgan Library & Museum, is living evidence of her dedication to librarianship and the preservation of rare materials.

JP Morgan Library 2023

Figure 8 The Morgan Library & Museum today!

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