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D.C. Recorder of Deeds moving but fate of murals unclear

The seven murals in the Recorder of Deeds depict prominent African Americans and their historical contributions. The building also chronicles black leadership.
The seven murals in the Recorder of Deeds depict prominent African Americans and their historical contributions. The building also chronicles black leadership. (Joel Richardson/the Washington Post)

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By Nicole Norfleet
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

When visitors walk into the lobby, they are greeted by the likenesses of Frederick Douglass and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. If they take a right at the statue of a shirtless President Abraham Lincoln, they will be flanked by four murals, one showing Gen. Andrew Jackson on a white horse at the Battle of New Orleans and another a dying Col. Robert Gould Shaw being held by a soldier of his Massachusetts 54th Regiment during the Civil War.

But this isn't a museum. It's a government office building.

Since its construction in 1942, the Recorder of Deeds building, 515 D St. NW, has saved a record of every sale or transfer of property in the District, including mortgages, land deeds, livestock records and slavery documents.

After more than 60 years, the office will be relocated to a smaller, more modern space, but the fate of the historic building and its relics has yet to be decided.

Ironically, the same building that houses manumission deeds also chronicles a long history of black leadership. Of the dozen oil portraits of former deeds recorders hanging on the halls, only a couple are of white officials. Most recorders have been black, starting with abolitionist Douglass, who was appointed by President James A. Garfield in 1881. For decades, the title was the highest obtained by any African American in Washington.

"There's a lot of history in this building," said Larry Todd, the current recorder of deeds.

In his second-floor office, he sits at the desk once occupied by William J. Thompkins, recorder of deeds from 1934 to 1944, who is credited with securing the funds for the building and requesting the murals.

The seven murals in the building depict prominent African Americans and their historical contributions, such as Benjamin Banneker, the pioneering black scientist and a surveyor of the city, and Douglass, who is painted in a scene petitioning Lincoln to allow blacks to serve in the Union Army.

The building also houses other artifacts, such as the semi-nude statue of a young Lincoln and a bronze relief of Roosevelt that is rumored to have inspired the image of the president on the dime.

"A lot of people don't think that's appropriate, that the recorder of deeds won't be going with the murals," said Todd, who declined to comment about whether he was happy with the move.

"It's like a gem," said Shawn Donald, the office's team leader.

Donald, who has worked in the building for about a decade, said he will miss the murals, which have inspired him daily.

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