Frederick Douglass 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 the 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 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.

The D.C. Recorder has ministerial obligations which were intended to increase economic efficiency rather than to advance racial equality, such as the duty to register property interests upon the satisfaction of certain conditions precedent, but nonetheless ensure that Black people are treated just like everybody else. This office also does work that highlights the implications of failing to ensure standardization, which include unjustified economic losses that stem from adverse selection and other asymmetric information issues. Lastly, the D.C. Recorder shows that any such losses are not solely imposed upon Black folks, especially as many neighborhoods have become increasingly integrated, so harms are not limited to property owners in majority-Black areas. Stated simply, this hidden power is a less-than-salient way to remove “unfreedoms that leave [Black] people with . . . little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency” even when they suffer from chronic property right violations such as trespasses to land or nuisances.

Part I provides additional information about Frederick Douglass and how he may have understood the various powers that are exercised by the D.C. Recorder of Deeds. Part II explains how to build upon Douglass’s legacy as the first Black D.C. Recorder, especially his call for more standardized treatment, mostly by explaining how this office could make better use of public information that it has in its possession. The Conclusion offers specific suggestions for how to achieve this goal, so as to prevent purchase price discrimination, lien fraud, and deed fraud.