Belle da Costa Greene

The Morgan Library, which occupies a large complex on New York’s Madison Avenue, is known internationally as one of the finest collections of books and manuscripts in the world. It was founded in 1906 to house the private library of legendary financier J. P. Morgan, who began to accumulate rare books, illuminated manuscripts, incunabula and examples of fine bookbinding at an almost aggressive rate in the 1890s. Morgan himself, however, was no scholar or connoisseur in the world of bibliophilia, and the expertise and passion which largely shaped the enormous collection belonged to his remarkable personal librarian, a woman of colour named Belle da Costa Greene.

Though not always remembered today, Greene was once the queen of the New York book world. With Morgan’s considerable fortune at her disposal, she set out to make his collection pre-eminent in the world, and her friendship was coveted by dealers and collectors alike across several continents. She was the first woman to be elected fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and was a permanent fellow of the New York Metropolitan museum. The well-known New York book dealer Hans Kraus recalled Greene on meeting her at age 65 as

“Strong willed and not easily charmed…fiercely devoted to the library, which her book knowledge and two generations of Morgan money had built. Nobody in the country had handled so many precious books or possessed such vast expertise. Her manner befitted her station: regal, aloof.”

Vivacious, impeccably dressed and a prominent figure in New York society, Greene’s early life and origins were nevertheless virtually unknown to her peers. Born Belle Marion Greener in Washington DC, Greene was from a well-known African American family. Her father, Richard Theodore Greener, was the first black graduate of Harvard University and went on to become an attorney and Dean of the Howard University School of Law. Despite his position, Greener found it difficult to provide for his family and they often teetered on the brink of poverty. Greene’s parents separated while she was still young and from this time, she, her mother and her sisters – all light-skinned – passed for white and changed their name from Greener to Greene. This decision, made by Greene’s mother Ida, was presumably intended to free herself and her daughters from the racial divisions that were becoming ever more deeply ingrained in American society, and give them a better chance to succeed in a prejudiced society.

Greene’s early career is not well documented but it seems that, having cherished a love of old books and papers from her youth, she found herself a position in the rare book department of Princeton University Library sometime before 1905. During this time, she completed the transformation of her identity, inventing a Portuguese heritage and adding ‘da Costa’ to her name to ward off any uncomfortable enquiries about her racial heritage.

Greene met Junius Spencer Morgan II, J. P. Morgan’s nephew, while at Princeton. When his uncle began looking for a private librarian to manage and expand his collection, Junius introduced him to Greene who apparently greatly impressed him, and she devoted the rest of her career to the care and curation of Morgan’s library. Travelling regularly to Europe in search of new acquisitions for the growing collection, Greene garnered a reputation as a formidable and respected scholar, an expert in her field. She continued her work under Jack Morgan after the death of his father in 1913 and, when Jack decided to incorporate the collection into the State of New York, to be used as a public resource, Greene was named the first director of the library, a position she held until 1948.

The year after her retirement, the Pierpont Morgan Library held an exhibition if Greene’s honour, displaying some of her most impressive purchases on behalf of the collection. Greene was an expert on illuminated manuscripts, incunabula and early bindings and the incomparable collection still held by the library is a testament to her vision and dedication.

Written for Sheroes of History by Rachel Chanter

Find out more…

The Morgan Library website has information about Belle and is a great place to explore her legacy. Why not visit the library and see it for yourself if you’re ever in NY?

The book An Illuminated Life: Bella da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege is a detailed account of Belle’s life.

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