Belle de Costa Greene worked as the personal librarian of J. P. Morgan from 1904 to 1913 and was instrumental in building his renowned collection of rare books, manuscripts, and art. After Morgan's death, Greene continued as librarian for his son, Jack Morgan, and in 1924 was named the first director of the Pierpont Morgan Library where she continued until her retirement in 1948. Her association with Morgan and his trust in her keen understanding of rare and valuable materials made her a sensation in both the art world and New York Society. Throughout her storied career, however, she maintained a secret. Though she passed for white, she was African American.
Born as Belle Marion Greener, she was the daughter of Genevieve Ida Fleet, a music teacher and member of a prominent African American family in Washington, DC, and Richard Theodore Greener, the first African American graduate of Harvard and a noted civil rights activist, diplomat, and lawyer. During her adolescence, Greene’s parents separated. Her mother changed their name to Greene and moved with the children to New York where they were light-skinned enough to pass as white. To explain her complexion, Greene claimed Portuguese ancestry and to that end added de Costa to her name.
Greene came to work for J.P. Morgan in her twenties after she was recommended by Morgan’s nephew who knew Greene during her time working at the Princeton University Library. She not only managed and organized the collection but was given great latitude in acquiring more items and developing the scope of the library’s holdings. She was a trail blazer of the time, breaking into a word dominated by men and transforming expectations. As an article in the New York Times (April 7, 1912) explained, “The ancient librarian is always pictured as having a gray beard and as wearing a skull cap. But here is one with a vivacious laugh, with brown eyes and rosy cheeks, who speaks delectable French, and who picks up a musty tome as gracefully as a butterfly alights on a dusty leaf. And she has individual ideas – ideas which her force of persuasion and her intelligence will eventually develop, backed as she is with Mr. Morgan’s wealth.”