It is 1905, and American tycoon J. P. Morgan has just hired Belle da Costa Greene to curate and manage his personal collection of rare art and manuscripts. Shrewd, determined, and passionate Belle soon becomes one of the most important people in New York society and in the art world at large, shaping the Pierpoint Morgan Library into a world-class collection unlike any other.
She is also hiding a secret, one that she carries to her grave—Belle is African-American, passing as white in a deeply segregated and racist society.
“Would someone, someday, reach back in time to discover my story and proudly claim the real me, the colored personal librarian to J. P. Morgan whose name was Belle da Costa Greene?”
The Personal Librarian may be a fictionalized account of events, but Belle’s remarkable story is true, and one that was only discovered after her death. The roots of racism in American society run deep, and racial passing—where light-skinned African-Americans cross the color line and live as white people—has a complicated history. Belle was born Belle Marion Greener, the daughter of Richard Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard and a civil rights activist, and Genevieve Fleet, a member of one of the most prominent colored families in Washington DC. Faced with segregation and increasing racial violence, Genevieve makes the difficult decision for the family to pass as white, even creating a fake Portuguese heritage to explain Belle’s darker skin. Even as she rises in society and enjoys unprecedented success as one of the highest-paid women in the country, Belle lives her life on a tightrope.
“Changing your name is easy. Changing your soul is impossible.”
It was equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring to see the lengths Belle had to go to, to pursue the life she was meant to lead. To be constantly on guard, denying your identity, forever maintaining a facade—this is the price Belle must pay for freedom from persecution and prejudice, knowing that all this privilege and power would never be granted to a black woman. No one can ever know, especially not her employer.
“You’re playing on a level where the consequences of being outed will be much higher. Just remember this is J. P. Morgan you’re dealing with.”
Belle’s struggles with racial passing remind me of Brit Bennett’s wonderful novel The Vanishing Half, which is a sad reminder that there is still so much work to be done to make this world a better place. The Personal Librarian is also a compelling and compassionate story about a strong powerful woman behind the scenes, similar to the black female NASA mathematicians at the heart of Hidden Figures. These are the narratives that history deemed unimportant—and so these are the stories we must continue reading, and sharing, and remembering. Let’s start there.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter @jeanarboleda and Instagram @_alikelystory.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]