The Story Of J.P. Morgan's 'Personal Librarian' — And Why She Chose To Pass As White
This summer on Code Switch, we're talking to some of our favorite authors about books that taught us about the different dimensions of freedom. In our last installment, we talked to author Julia Alvarez about her poetry collection The Woman I Kept to Myself and how difficult it can be to share your many selves with the world. Next up, a conversation with authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray on their book The Personal Librarian.
At the turn of the 20th century, financier J.P. Morgan amassed a rich collection of antique objects related to the power of the written word: manuscripts, books, artwork. He did it all with the idea of enjoying his collection privately. But shortly after his death, Morgan's personal librarian, a woman named Belle da Costa Greene, convinced J.P. Morgan's son, Jack Morgan, to make the library a gift to New York City.
The Morgan, as it is now known, welcomes thousands of visitors each year — scholars, researchers, tourists and art lovers — to enjoy the collection. What most don't know is this: For more than four decades, the library's collections were acquired and curated by a Black woman. Belle da Costa Greene was quietly passing as white in order to work for one of the most powerful men in the United States.
I called up authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray to discuss The Personal Librarian — the fictionalized account of the very real Belle da Costa Greene. We talked about Greene's extraordinary career, why she chose to pass as white and the friendship the authors forged while writing the book. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Marie, you spent a lot of time browsing through the Morgan when you came to New York in the '90s. Did anyone mention Belle da Costa Greene at that point?
Benedict: I was so fortunate that a docent who just happened to be in my vicinity mentioned her to me, somebody who had obviously, whether it was through their own research or just word of mouth, knew about the role that Belle had played. And, you know, I hadn't started writing at that time, but Belle had started to inhabit my imagination way back when. As I came to know more about her, I knew hers was a story that needed to be told.
It's interesting because the central theme in your book, really, in my opinion, is passing. This summer, Code Switch is focusing on books that touch on the idea of freedom. I'm wondering if either of you thinks that passing makes you more free or less free?
Benedict: Great question! I mean, I think there are certainly benefits of passing, right? Belle had the ability to rise up and become J.P. Morgan's personal librarian and the ability to really wield a great deal of power. There was a tremendous amount of sacrifice and victory, and Victoria and I thought it was really important to explore that in the book.
Belle's father was Richard Theodore Greener. He was a man who was dean of Howard [University] Law School, one of the first and only Black professors at the University of South Carolina at a time period when it was integrated for a brief moment.
During Reconstruction, right?
Benedict: Yes, during Reconstruction. He was an advocate of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which, if it had not been overturned by the Supreme Court in the [1880s], could have set the stage for equality. We could have gotten it right from that moment forward. So she's kind of steeped in all of that teaching, and that's paired with this wonderful rich heritage she had from her mother. Her mother was part of an elite free community of color in Washington, D.C., that had been free for generations.
And Belle had to sacrifice all of that to pass as white. She couldn't embrace her father's teachings. She couldn't see her mother's family. There were so many sacrifices that went along with passing that we felt really needed to be explored.
Most of all, Belle had to give up the idea of having a family of her own. She could not marry and have children if she wanted to maintain her identity as J.P. Morgan's white personal librarian. To have a child would be to take a risk that her child would not look as white as she did. And it was not only her personal identity that was kind of hinging on this white identity. It was also her family's. They not only were financially dependent upon her, but their identity as white people hinged on her identity as a white person as well. So there was so much heavy burden and responsibility and sacrifice that I think, you know, it would be tough to say it was a "freedom" to be white in that time for Belle.
Do you think Morgan knew she wasn't white? When J.P. Morgan looked at her, he never suspected this whole time that the person that he was entrusting his cultural legacy to was a person of color?
Benedict: Victoria and I talked extensively about whether or not he would know. And a certain part of it we've discussed is the way in which she presented herself and the way in which the white people of that time of his class would have perceived someone like Belle. I think they wouldn't have assumed she was Black — if she were, in their minds she would not have been as confident, as outspoken, as well educated. You know, they had such preconceptions about what a Black person could and should be and what the limitations would be, and she presented in contradiction to those expectations.
So the assumptions of white prejudice allowed Belle to be accepted as white?
Murray: You know, Marie and I talk about this a lot, but we are looking at it with 21st-century eyes, and I believe that it's only been recently that our perceptions, whether we're white or Black, have become more similar. I know people in the '60s and '70s who didn't realize when someone light skinned was Black. And I think because we, Black people, have been exposed our entire life to the shades of Black, it doesn't seem so odd to us. In J.P. Morgan's situation, they weren't used to that. It was Black or white. So there were rumors. But I think Morgan saw Greene as she presented herself — as a white woman.
Benedict: Victoria and I like to say she almost was hiding in plain sight. And embedded in that is the unfortunate but probably widely held notion that if she were Black, she would not have spoken so outrageously or dressed so flamboyantly.
Belle had lived a significant part of her life as a Black person before she began to pass though, right?
Murray: One of the things that I think is the most interesting to me was that Belle was 16 when this decision was made for her. That is such an interesting age because she was Black for 16 years! That's a long time. Those are the formative years. That's when you become you. And she was Black and then had to flip to white.
At the end of her life, Belle purposely destroyed her correspondence. In doing that, who was she protecting?
Benedict: We think of the public Morgan Library as the legacy that she was protecting. It was the one thing that made all this sacrifice really worth it. And so if the general population had found out that the Morgan Library had been run by a Black woman for almost four decades, what would have the reaction been? You know, she died in 1950 — still the age of segregation, open racism. I really think she would have been legitimately concerned about what might have been done to the legacy that she left behind if people had found out.
Victoria, you're Black and Marie is white. Do you think you're capturing both sides of Belle by writing her story together?
Benedict: We became so much more than partners throughout this process. You know, we edited and wrote up the bulk of this book not only during the pandemic but during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. And that informed those really personal conversations about race and Victoria's trust in describing her own personal experiences with me. That not only vastly changed our depiction of Belle and our conversations around Belle but, at least for me, really transformed me.
So we not only have a history that you all have come together to create, but a friendship came out of this book?
Murray: More than a friendship — a sisterhood.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.