Fredrick Douglas and the Hidden Power of Recording Deeds

This Essay answers a single question: What led Frederick Douglass to accept an appointment as the D.C. Recorder of Deeds, especially at the height of his public service career? A possible answer, which is informed by the historical record and more contemporary accounts, is that Douglass accepted such an appointment for three reasons. The first reason is that the D.C. Recorder has been long recognized as an exemplar of fairness, perhaps due to its ministerial obligations, even when there could be no such expectation with respect to how Black folks are treated. The second reason is this office provided Douglass with a relatively safe position, in economic and political terms, that he used to call for more standard treatment of Black people by various governmental units such as the U.S. Supreme Court. The final reason is the D.C. Recorder collects public information, in the normal course of its business, which validates Douglass’s call for more standard treatment

 These three reasons, if they are read as a whole, refer to what this Essay is the first to call the hidden power of recording deeds. This power is made up of unnoticed benefits, largely arising from governmental policies informed by procedural fairness, which help to limit racial discrimination. Procedural fairness, by definition, is when the U.S. governments refuse to treat similarly situated people in nonstandard ways without adequate justification. One reason for such a refusal to do so is that governments may have ministerial obligations, which limit their ability to exercise any discretion.

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