The Power of Choices
How do you not just survive but thrive when you live in a world that requires you to hide in plain sight? The highly courageous and determined Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. First we make our choices. Then our choices make us.” And sometimes choices are foisted upon us due to an environment of intolerance.
The book The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray tells the incredible true story of Belle De Costa Greene, the personal librarian to J. P. Morgan–a Black American woman who was forced to hide her true identity and pass as white. She spent her entire life hiding in front of one of the richest men in the world.
Belle’s mother made the decision to register her family in the census as “white” when they moved from an affluent Black part of Washington DC to New York City. Her father, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality, left his family because he refused to live a lie. However, Belle’s mother stood by her decision, knowing she was making a choice that would improve her children’s lives.
How careful Belle needed to be in every part of her life so as not to reveal her identity and to have such control over her thoughts and actions so as not to cause doubt about her true racial identity. She had a few run-ins with one of Morgan’s daughters, Anne, who suspected the truth about Belle. Belle managed to stop her from revealing her true race after she discovered Anne was hiding her own secret identity.
Belle traveled all over the world, adding the most important of rare books and manuscripts to Morgan’s private collection. Eventually, she turned the library into one of the country’s major public resources, spearheading robust programs of exhibits, lectures, publications, and research services. Belle spent 43 years of her life curating the collection and programs. After his death, she convinced Morgan’s son to open the collection to the people, even becoming its first Director in 1924 when it opened to the public.
Over the course of her life, Belle worked to give knowledge to the people. However, her positive impact on society rests on the decision to continue to pass as white. Belle’s love for books, her dedication to public knowledge—none of this could have been possible had she lived her life as a Black American woman in the early 20th century.
Belle’s fascinating life shows us how choices define us, as her mother’s choice forever changed the course of Belle’s life. Belle lived her life in white society, hiding in plain sight from those who worked to keep Black Americans out. From her humble start as the personal librarian for J. P. Morgan, to the first Director of The Pierpont Morgan Library that still stands today, she leaves a legacy no one would have thought possible.
My rating: 5 stars. Interested in seeing what else I am reading? Friend me on Goodreads.
Manager of Operations, Community Engagement