Often our role models fight prejudice, either directly or indirectly, for survival and to help others. But fighting prejudice is not the only way to deal with injustices in your world; you can also use those biases to propel yourself forward. Belle da Costa Greene worked with the bigotry of her day, then helped open the eyes of the world to the wonders of the past.
Greene was born Belle Marion Greener on December 13, 1883, or perhaps November 26, 1879; there is disagreement among some historians, but most side with the 1883 date. Her family life was complicated. Her mother, Genevieve Ida Fleet Greene, came from a prominent Black family in Washington, D.C. Her father, Richard T. Greener, was a well-known Black intellectual whose life story is remarkable. Her parents separated but never divorced, leaving Greene and her family in a precarious economic situation.
Greene, her mother, and her siblings used their lighter skin and ability to pass as white to help them navigate the prejudice that surrounded them so they could survive. First they changed their surname to “Greene,” and then their mother changed her maiden name to “Van Vilet,” which implied Dutch ancestry. Greene went further, changing her middle name to “da Costa” and claiming a Portuguese ancestry to help her pass. It may be during her parents’ separation that the Greene family moved to New York City so their identities would have been easier to recreate than they would have been had they stayed in D.C. True, name changes and passing for another race were not uncommon, but they were dangerous at that time, even in the North.
Even though her father had refused to help his children attend college and Greene only had a public school education, she secured a position at the Princeton University Library early in the 20th century. Biographical accounts say that Greene’s love of rare books and illuminated manuscripts developed during her childhood. Soon she would have the opportunity to focus on such treasures.
In 1905, Greene started working for the wealthy banker J. P. Morgan, helping him organize and manage his rare book and manuscript collection until his death; she then continued working for his son for the next 12 years. During Greene’s 43 years at the Morgan Library, she became a force in the world of rare book collecting and developed the museum into a place for researchers and the general public when the collection went public in 1924. Today, the Morgan Library & Museum continues to expand in New York City. In 1939, her abilities earned her the position of Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, the second woman and first known person of color to achieve that honor.
Much is unknown about Greene’s life because she burned her private records before her death on May 10, 1950. She never married but may have had romantic relationships with Morgan and art historian, Bernard Berenson. Her public records show a woman of great intelligence and charisma who used her talents to socialize and work in elite academic circles as well as opening up an amazing collection to the general public. She was even the subject of a portrait by French artist, Paul-Cesar Helleu in 1913, as part of his Belle Époque series.
2018 saw a resurgence of interest in Greene. In May, the Medieval Academy of America established the Belle Da Costa Greene Award, for any medievalist of color for travel and research. In November there was a conference in honor of Greene’s work and life, so her example as a woman who can work the system that she is forced to live with continues to inspire people today who work with medieval art and books.