It is the oldest known image of Belle da Costa Greene, perhaps the most celebrated librarian of her time.
The words “famous” and “librarian” seldom show up in the same sentence. But Belle da Costa Greene was emphatically both.
Greene, who lived from 1879 to 1950, built the preeminent collection of rare books, manuscripts and art for New York’s Morgan Library, and was the most trusted purchasing agent of the financier and collector J.P. Morgan. She was an expert in illuminated manuscripts. And she was lionized for her negotiating skills.
“She knows more about rare books than any other American,” said the Chicago Tribune in 1912. “She runs to Europe on secret missions, and [she’s] the terror of continental collectors’ agents.”
Greene acquired too many extraordinary works to name. In 1949, the Morgan held a show of her 250 most renowned purchases. She helped make the Morgan the world’s third largest collector of Caxton works, buying 15th-century editions of Chaucer and beyond, first produced by English printer William Caxton. And she pushed to bring the Morgan’s largesse to the greater public, not just to scholars. One of the shows she put on, in 1924, brought 170,000 people to the library to see these stunning works up close.
Greene was covered often and fawningly in the day’s media, in the New York Times and elsewhere, and her likeness was photographed, painted and sculpted by various artists. With her arch quips and air of mystery, she cut a swathe through Manhattan’s high society.
Theodore C. Marceau (1859–1922), Belle da Costa Greene, May 1911
She was also a person of mixed racial heritage who passed for white.
That story—which is full of deflection and nuance and hiding in plain sight—has taken on greater depth as new knowledge has cropped up.
And this is where Amherst College, literally, enters the picture. Mike Kelly, head of Amherst’s Archives and Special Collections, recently unearthed a photograph of Greene—which turns out to be the earliest known photograph of her in existence. It predates others by at least a decade and shows her in a transitional moment before she fully changed her name in order to pass as white.
The image was taken in front of Amherst’s Morgan Library (now Morgan Hall) in July 1900. Greene, then 21, is shown standing with her classmates in the College’s Summer School of Library Economy, which ran from 1893 to 1911 and offered courses in the burgeoning field of library science. The group learned the latest techniques in cataloguing and indexing that summer and were also taught “library hand,” a more legible style of handwriting than cursive. On the back of the class photo, Greene has signed her name in library hand.
Kelly was plumbing Amherst’s archival material on this summer school at the request of Philip Palmer, the curatorial lead for an extensive exhibit at the Morgan on Greene’s life and work. It is timed to the Morgan’s centennial and will open in October 2024.
“The Amherst photograph is the most exciting discovery we’ve made while preparing for the exhibit,” says Palmer.
Greene’s original surname was Greener. She was one of five children of Richard T. Greener, a prominent member of Washington, D.C.’s Reconstruction-era Black community. He was the first Black graduate of Harvard, later dean of the Howard University School of Law and one of the nation’s first Black diplomats. Her mother was Genevieve Ida Fleet, a music teacher from a prominent Black family in Washington.
The family moved to New York when Richard Greener became secretary of the association that raised funds to build Grant’s Tomb. The family’s decision to pass as white came about after the Greeners’ marriage fell apart and Richard moved overseas. In the book An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, author Heidi Ardizzone speculates that Genevieve, with no financial help from Richard, thought she and her children would have a better chance to support themselves if they took on new identities.
Toward that end, writes Ardizzone, they switched from Greener to Greene, to disassociate themselves from Richard, and then strategically selected new middle names. Genevieve chose “van Vliet” as if to signal old Dutch New York heritage. Belle and some of her siblings added the middle name “da Costa,” to denote Portuguese ancestry, as a way to explain their darker complexion.
Clarence H. White, (1871–1925); Portrait of Belle De Costa Greene, 1911
Ardizzone adds that, throughout her life, Greene would tell people she had Egyptian heritage, Middle Eastern or Abyssinian as well as Portuguese roots, but it also appears it was an open secret to some that she had Black heritage. In 2021, Morgan Library researcher Daria Rose Foner blogged about one person in the know: a wealthy white patron who paid Belle’s way at the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies (now Northfield Mount Hermon School), in Western Massachusetts, and who lived next door to J.P. Morgan himself.
Greene may have been working as an apprentice in the New York Public Library system, according to Ardizzone, when she came to Amherst. Shortly thereafter, she took a job at Princeton, in the university’s library, and met Junius Morgan, also a collector and nephew to J.P. Morgan. When Palmer began his research, he wasn’t sure how she ended up at Princeton after Amherst—but Kelly may have solved that riddle.
Kelly figured out that the Princeton library’s head was an Amherst alum, Ernest Cushing Richardson, class of 1880. Perhaps the library economy school’s director, William I. Fletcher, connected Greene to Richardson. Richardson was an expert on the history of libraries, and Greene admiringly called him “the best bibliographer in America,” according to the Ardizzone book.
At the time, Amherst “was clearly at the forefront of library education and of the professionalization of librarianship,” says Kelly. Indeed, Richardson had worked in the stacks at Amherst for Melvil E. Dewey, class of 1874, creator of the Dewey Decimal system (which he first implemented at the College). It must be said that Richardson and Dewey shared the prejudices of their era. This makes Greene’s ascent all the more notable, and complicated.
“The Amherst photo is incredible,” says Palmer. “In it, a lot of people are looking off to the side, and Belle is in the back, in the ivy. She’s looking right at us, though. It almost looks like she’s thinking, ‘You don’t know me—but one day you will.’’