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Although there had long been rumors that Greene was of African American descent, her background was a mystery until 1999 when writer Jean Strouse revealed in Morgan: American Financier, her biography of banker and art collector John Pierpont Morgan, that Greene was in fact the daughter of Richard T. Greener, a lawyer and diplomat and the first black graduate of Harvard College. She was born Belle Marion Greener in Washington, D.C., where her father was dean of the Howard University Law School for a short time. Her parents separated in the 1890s, however, and Greene's mother, Genevieve Fleet Greener, disappeared with her children. When they resurfaced in New York City, her mother had changed the family surname to Greene, and they had passed into the white world.

Unable to afford college Greene as a young woman took a job in the Princeton University Library ...