The Reinvented Life of Belle da Costa Greene

Spring 2023 Exhibition and Programming related to Belle da Costa Greene, famed librarian for J.P. Morgan and expert on incunabula. 

      One of the most well-known American librarians and experts in illuminated manuscripts (incunabula) in the early-mid twentieth century, Belle da Costa Greene helped build the renowned Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Indeed, she was known as “the soul of the Morgan Library.” Greene also summered annually with the Vanderbilts in their “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island. She began her career as the personal librarian of financier John Pierpont Morgan, one of the richest men in Gilded Age America. She ended it as the library’s first director from 1924-48.  

      Born Belle Marion Greener in 1879, the green-eyed Greene was the daughter of the first African American graduate of Harvard College. She also belonged to the colored elite in Washington, DC. She accessed the rarefied worlds of the Morgans and Vanderbilts by “passing” as a white woman. In exploring her reinvented life, this month-long series of events will engage questions of race, color, class, gender, and passing. 


Belle da Costa Greene, 1911

Clarence H. White, 1871–1925; born West Carlisle, OH; died Mexico City, Mexico; active Ohio and New York
Platinum print
image: 23.8 x 17.1 cm (9 3/8 x 6 3/4 in.) mat: 50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in.) frame: 51.4 × 41.3 × 3.8 cm (20 1/4 × 16 1/4 × 1 1/2 in.)
Princeton University Art Museum. The Clarence H. White Collection, assembled and organized by Professor Clarence H. White Jr., and given in memory of Lewis F. White, Dr. Maynard P. White Sr., and Clarence H. White Jr., the sons of Clarence H. White Sr. and Jane Felix White


  • Exhibition

    The Reinvented Life of Belle da Costa Greene exhibition includes books about Belle da Costa Greene and works of fiction and non-fiction that deal with the subject of racial passing.

    February 14 - May 14, 2023

    Special Collections, Vanderbilt Central Library 

  • Exhibition Opening & Reception

    The opening of The Reinvented Life of Belle da Costa Greene will include a reception catered by Hattie B's. Please come for a first look at the exhibition and opening remarks.

    Tuesday, February 14th, 12 pm-1 pm

    Special Collections, Vanderbilt Central Library 


  • Panel Discussion: “The Morgan, The Woman, and Her Illuminated Life”

    “The Morgan, The Woman, and Her Illuminated Life” is a moderated lunchtime panel (lunch served first come, first serve).

    Moderated Discussants: 

    Joanna Colclough, The Library of Congress 

    Daria Rose Foner, Sotheby’s and former Research Associate, Morgan Library & Museum

    Heidi Ardizzone, Author of An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene's journey from Prejudice to Privilege

    Moderator: Tracy D. Sharpley-Whiting, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor and Vice Provost for Arts and Libraries 

    Thursday, February 16th, 12 pm-1 pm

    The Community Room, Vanderbilt Central Library

  • Greene Reading Groups

    The Greene Reading Group discusses two books related to Belle da Costa Greene and the subject of racial passing. Dr. Claudine Taaffe, Associate Chair of and Senior Lecturer for African American and Diaspora Studies, will lead discussions.

    Registration for the group has been closed

    Wednesday, February 8, 12 pm -1 pm, The Personal Librarian (2021) by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

    A novel based on the life of J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the Black American who passed as white throughout her career at the Morgan Library in New York City.

    Wednesday, March 22, 12 pm-1 pm, Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen

    Originally published in 1929, Passing tells of the troublesome relationship between two African American women who are light enough to pass for white. Irene Redfield marries an African American doctor and moves to Harlem. Clare Kendry, on the other hand, marries a bigoted white man–never telling him of her true heritage. When the two women meet, after decades of separation, they impact each other's lives in ways neither would have imagined.

    The Greene Reading Group will meet in the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center Auditorium. Please contact Claire Campbell ( if you have any questions.

  • Salon 615 Film Screening and Discussion: Passing (2021)

    In partnership with the Nashville Public Library's Salon 615, we will be screening the film Passing (2021), an adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel.

    Film: Passing (2021), directed by Rebecca Hall

    This drama, filmed in black-and-white, tells the story of the unexpected reunion of two high school friends in 1920s New York City. Both friends, Irene and Clare, are black women, yet one passes as white. Their renewed friendship creates tension in each woman's life and concludes in tragedy.

    Discussion Led By: Tiffany R. Patterson and T. Sharpley-Whiting (Vanderbilt University) 

    Thursday, March 23, 6:15 pm - 8:30 pm 

    Nashville Public Library Auditorium

    615 Church St

    Nashville, TN 37219

Tracy leading discussion
Chancellor's visit

Additional Resources