Preserving Black History in Bucks County, PA, with Recorder of Deeds Robin Robinson
In this episode of On Record PR, Sarah Larson goes on record with Robin Robinson, Recorder of Deeds in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Robin was first elected to the Recorder of Deeds in Bucks County in November 2017 and was sworn into office on January 2nd, 2018. Throughout her first year, Robin made significant positive changes to the office. One of her most notable achievements is the historic deed book restoration project, which is what we’ll be talking about today. Robin has made every effort possible to maintain our property records. By restoring these historic treasures, she made it her personal mission to preserve Bucks County’s history by doing whatever she could to save the more than 700 historic deed books she found deteriorating in the county warehouse. To this end, Robin launched an Adopt-a-Book program, which allows business leaders and community members to make donations to help defer the cost of restoring this process.
She also put measures into place to thwart deed scammers. In addition to instituting a free Bucks County Fraud Alert system for the residents of Bucks County, this voluntary service notifies residents via email or text, anytime a document is recorded in Robin’s office against their name. More than 2,000 residents have signed up for this proactive solution. Prior to being elected Recorder of Deeds, Robin served as the executive assistant to County Commissioner, Diane Ellis Marseglia. Before her tenure in the commissioner’s office, Robin worked as the Bucks County Jury Commissioner. In addition to her experience in county government, Robin worked at a title company and served as a licensed realtor. Robin is proud of the first 15 years of her career in fashion retail management; she and her late husband were the owner-operators of a small retail business. Robin graduated from San Diego State University and made it out here to Pennsylvania.
Widowed at a young age, Robin knows the extensive toll the death of a loved one can have on a family. She believes giving back her own personal time as a volunteer facilitator with the bereavement group, Safe Harbor, at Abington Hospital, and Gift of Life organ donation is important and valuable life work. Robin also volunteers her time to care for homeless cats at Rescue Purrfect, located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. For the last seven years, she has been honored to serve on the Bucks County delegation to the Pennsylvania Democratic state committee. Robin has two adult children, a rescue dog named Lily, and lives in Warwick Township.
Today we’re going to focus on this amazing project to preserve some of these deeds that you found in Bucks County.
Before we launch into that part, why don’t you share with our listeners a little bit about why you ran for the office of Recorder of Deeds?
The first time I ran was in 2005. The Democrats were looking for someone to run for Recorder of Deeds. They sent out a blast email, and I read it and said to my husband, “Wow, look at this. You know, I think I could do this.” I applied to run with the party, and they said yes. I felt qualified to run because of my real estate background, my title background and my management background. That’s what I’m proud of. I know how to run an office and great customer service is a big issue for me. I lost by 1,400 votes. I ran again in 2009 because I have this personality that won’t let me give up.
I lost again in 2009, not unexpectedly. My husband passed away in 2010, and in 2013, I decided to sit it out. But when 2016 came, I said to my kids, “I think I’m going to give this one last try, because it looks like things are shifting in the county and I might have a chance. I would just be sick if I didn’t try and somebody else won this when I know that I can do it.” Even though I didn’t know. We don’t know what we don’t know in life. That’s what I’d like to say in this department. I didn’t know, but I gave it one last try — I worked hard and I won. It has been the most fun I think I’ve ever had in my life.
Two questions come to mind about that backstory. Number one, for our listeners who are not as engaged in politics, whether at the local or state level, is it common to run the first time and not win?
Bucks County was a very strong Republican county. You had to be a Republican to win a county office. Now, The Democrats have all the offices. This is a first. When I won Recorder of Deeds, I was the first Democrat in more than 30 years to win. The last one was Lucille Trench, who went on to become a county commissioner. It’s rare that things have changed in Bucks County. If you’re political, you know that usually a Democrat can win the presidential race here, but for local elections, Democrats don’t come out to vote. Well, they’re coming out now and all of us are proof. You know, I could have switched to become a Republican, but that’s not in my DNA, plus I don’t even think that this should be a political office. I do not treat this as a political office. My main job is to protect and maintain a record of this county.
Sarah Larson: That’s a great segue into letting our listeners know what exactly a Recorder of Deeds does. Because again, if you’re just a normal everyday person and you don’t typically follow public service or local public governments, you probably have very little idea what actually happens.
What exactly does your office do?
We record all the deeds, mortgages, powers of attorney and name changes. We do the notary commissions of people in the county. We record about 25 important documents here, including veterans’ discharge papers, which we do free of charge. That’s important. I had a mother who was one of the first women to join the United States army in World War II, and she lived with me for 11 years. When she became ill, I needed help with her care. Because I was able to get her discharge papers, we had those papers to prove things. We have discharge papers of the veterans who let us record them. That’s not public information. Everything else we have is public information.
When you buy a new home, title companies search that title to give you a clean title and give you title insurance. That is done here in our office. We do many things like that. When you pay off your mortgage, that mortgage satisfaction comes to us. One of the questions we get asked most is from people who call and say they’ve paid off their mortgage and they want their deed, and they think that we have them here. When you close on your home, you’re given the deed, after closing, by your title company. It comes here, we record it, and we send it back to your title company (or your lawyer) and they give you your deed. Now, we will always be happy to email one of our constituents their deed free of charge. If we have to print it out and mail it, we charge a very small fee for that. But the deeds are not kept here. The records are in the cloud.
Sarah Larson: I can’t wait until the day that I need to email and say, “Robin, I paid off my house.”
Robin Robinson: Back in the old days, deeds were large and beautifully written out – they were just gorgeous. Now they’re just white paper copies. It’s not as exciting as it was in the old days here in Bucks County.
Many, many years ago when I covered Bucks County government for our local newspapers here, I spent some time in the Recorder of Deeds office and saw the deed from William Penn and they’re absolutely beautiful documents. They’re up there with the illuminated manuscripts of the Bible that the Franciscan friars used to labor over, with all of the beautiful edging and the pretty designs. I assume that those books are kept somewhere. Where are those books kept?
You’re describing the deeds. They’re large and beautiful, and they have cuts on the top of them to show the chain of title. It’s like a puzzle; you match up the edges. I have some old deeds I preserved and they’re gorgeous. I love to show and brag about them. But the deed books are the record of those deeds. The record is word for word of what’s on the deed. Back in the day, people who were writing the deeds were being paid by the word, so they’re very wordy and hard to read.
Sarah Larson: Wait a minute, wait a minute. The writers were paid by the word? So that’s why the deeds are so wordy?
Robin Robinson: Yes, and the deed books are, word for word, everything that’s on the person’s deed.
Back then, and still today, it is not legally required to record a deed, but we highly recommend it for the search of title. I’ve opened up the records back to 1684. When I got here, you could only get the records online back to 1980. To search before that, you’d have to come into our office. Now, any citizen can go on landex.com and look at all the records of these deed books. Landex does charge a small fee, 15 cents a minute and 10 cents to make a copy, I think. But we have a lot of people who are very interested in genealogy and they want to search their names and the properties of their ancestors – it’s all there available for them to do at home.
Sarah Larson: That brings us to one of the reasons that you caught my eye. Robin and I were on a virtual networking Zoom call hosted by the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce, because we’re still in the middle of this pandemic and many events that previously were held in person are now held via Zoom. You had talked about your deed preservation project. One of the things that caught my attention specifically was the records of the emancipated slaves.
Tell us about how that project started. I know there’s an interesting backstory on how you even found those books. How did that project get started, Robin?
I had found the old deeds in the warehouse, and I started preserving them. I had gone to a meeting of Pennsylvania Recorders of Deeds in June 2018 and met a recorder from Washington County, who was telling me about records of enslaved people that she had in her deed books. There are documents called manumissions, documents from before the Civil War, that are drawn up to free slaves. Mostly Quakers would purchase a slave and then they would write up a manumission to set them free. Then they would have those recorded in my deed books.
I found most of these manumissions in our “miscellaneous” record books. We have about 60 volumes of miscellaneous books, and they had the manumissions in them. They also recorded cows that had been purchased, general store items, powers of attorney, and all kinds of miscellaneous things. And in those books, I found these manumissions.
We were able to get a federal grant for $125,000 from Save America’s Treasures Grants from the National Park Services. We were able to save these miscellaneous books with the manumissions in them. Every township or municipality in this county had enslaved people. I’ve been told that you could stand in Warminster and look across at the gorgeous farms and in every little house, there lived an enslaved person. The enslaved people in Bucks County built this county. We’ve been working on studying as much as we can of this history, to try to tell the story through the land records.
There were two enslaved people named Cudjo and Joe who were owned by Jeremiah Langhorne. When he passed away, he left life rights to these two fellows. Back then, enslaved people were not allowed to own property beyond their lifespan; they only were able to own this property through the course of their lives. One of them left, and I hope he got a little money for the land, but the other one stayed and worked that land until he passed away. Then that property was sold off. What’s very interesting is that that property is all right here – it’s Doylestown Borough. Where I’m sitting right now in the old courthouse building is part of the land that was owned by our two enslaved people, Joe and Cudjo.
To me, that means a lot. There are stories all over this county. We have the deeds recorded of places that were part of the Underground Railroad. We’re still working on a story about that. It’s absolutely fascinating. Most people in Bucks County don’t realize that we had enslaved people. We had a large task with the underground railroad. We have a place in Quakertown that 700 enslaved people went through on their way North. It’s just fascinating.
Sarah Larson: One of the things that has changed in the last few months, perhaps, is a newfound resolution for many of us to focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism. As a white person, part of that for me is recognizing that there’s some history that I must unlearn and relearn. Some of the things that you just mentioned are an important part of Bucks County’s story, enslaved people here in Bucks County, and how few of us still commonly know about it. Your office’s focus on preserving these records will help advance that story even further. My children hopefully will someday be learning much more about that than we ever learned.
Robin Robinson: I hope so. There’s so much I’m learning still. When I first got hold of these manumissions, I was excited. Many knew that the Quakers were buying enslaved people and setting them free. But there’s always a “but.” Some of these manumissions free the enslaved person when they turned 28 years old. I was very naive at that point and was thinking that’s young, but it’s not. Back then, it was believed that at 28 they were too old and that they couldn’t do any more work. Like you said, we didn’t all learn the true history the way it was originally written. We learned what the books told us.
Sarah Larson: Exactly. The person who gets to write the story tells the story.
How far along in the preservation process are you?
I’m halfway through. We had 700 volumes and most of those volumes turned into two volumes each. For example, Book 33 is part one and part two, because after all the pages are restored, they are put into Mylar sleeves, which makes the books very large and heavy. But they’re going to last for 500 years. We have a new storage facility here in this building. They’re under lock and key. They’re kept very cool. We have a humidifier gauge in there that we received from a grant.
One of my other goals is to take care of these books now that they’re redone, and to go forward. We’re still applying for grants and have a couple of books being restored right now with the proceeds from a grant we received from the state, and we’re still looking for more grants. We have raised $40,000 from the public, from municipalities, and from all kinds of people to help preserve these books. When people give us a lot of money, we put their name in the book. It’s a wonderful gift. Last Christmas, I had a lot of people give large donations to put their loved one’s name in the book. It’s something that’s going to last forever. It’s an honor.
Sarah Larson: That’s an important thing to emphasize. This project isn’t being done with county taxpayer dollars, correct?
Robin Robinson: Correct, it’s done with Adopt-A-Book money, grant money, and with Record Improvement money. By state law, every time we record a document in this office, we collect $5. Three dollars stays in this office for our Record Improvement money, and two dollars goes to the county for other record improvements. My main job is to maintain and protect the record of this county. I’m given this Record Improvement money to use for that.
When we had this pandemic and the building shut down, my office was all ready to work from home, but I had a limited number of laptops. I budgeted the record improvement money, not taxpayer dollars, to purchase laptops for most of the staff so that people could work at home to keep the department disease-free. Legally, we have five days to record any document that comes in here. We must keep this office going.
The other thing I’m looking into that we’re going to be doing this year is moving our records to PDFA files. That’s going to save the county more money. Right now, records are on microfilm and they’re stored at an offsite location, Iron Mountain. We pay a lot of money to store our records there. These records are so important and we just have to take care of them. So now, we have the physical books and the online records. We are in good shape.
Sarah Larson: It sounds like we’re hedging our bets against the changing file storage systems of the future. I don’t know about you, but I can’t access the floppy disks that all my college papers are saved on anymore.
Robin Robinson: Exactly. This is how I’m paying for this project, with money that I’m supposed to use to improve the record. Legally, I cannot give that money to Children and Youth or the Health Department or anywhere. It has to be used to improve and maintain the record of this county it’s a dedicated fee.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the Bucks County fraud alert system? What is that?
When I first got here, I saw a company’s advertisement on television that claimed for $9.95 per month it would protect a person’s deed. I came into the office and I started thinking about it. How would they protect someone’s deed? I guess they could because it’s public information. But I don’t really know how they would be protecting the deed. I needed to do something for my constituents to help prevent any fraud. A lot of people know about the fraud in Philadelphia and about the taking of the deeds and the homes. We haven’t had any of that fear at all, but I wanted to be proactive.
Landex wrote this program for us to protect us against identity theft. Anybody can sign up, and it’s super easy to do, and it’s free. Once you’re signed up, if anything is reported in our department in your name, you will get an alert either by text or email, however you choose to be notified.
It’s been wonderful. I have one constituent in Upper Makefield who told me she calls our office every week because she’s worried someone in her family is doing something illegal with her name. She doesn’t have to do that anymore. If anything gets recorded here in her name, she’s going to get an alert.
Fraud does happen. A neighbor told me that he owns a big house in Warrington that he paid off, and he told his whole family at a family party. A few weeks later, he received paperwork in the mail for a home equity loan on that house. He didn’t take that loan out. Someone forged his name, and a fake notary seal, and it got reported to my office. He had to pay $100,000 and it took two years to straighten this out. It turned out it was his niece. He did not press charges. This was before my fraud alert program. But if he had been signed up for this fraud alert program, he would have been alerted immediately. We would have told him what to do and he could have stopped this. We find everyone seems to really like it. We haven’t had any fraud to our knowledge here, but we’re ready. It’s just something that can help protect us against identity theft, which is a real problem.
Sarah Larson: How horrible when it’s your own family perpetrating a fraud.
Robin Robinson: I speak to a lot of people who say it’s friends, family or work associates. I ran into another person when I was out and I handed him a card about the fraud alert system. He told me, “Oh my gosh, you’re just a month too late.” A work associate had stolen this fellow’s identity. We just have to be careful.
Sarah Larson: It probably happens a lot more than we really know.
We have two questions that we always like to ask our guests. On a personal note, what achievement are you most proud of and why?
I’m very proud of my kids and that I was able to get them through high school, college and graduate school on my own. Today would have been my husband’s 70th birthday, and he’s been gone 10 years.
On a professional level, I’m extremely proud of the deed books and being able to see a problem for which I could provide a solution. These books were thrown on the floor in the warehouse with no heat, no air conditioning. They held records of this county back to 1684. William Penn’s name, our long-lost relatives, and all kinds of stuff are in these books. I feel proud and grateful for all the people who have helped make rescuing them possible.
One of the things we’ve been asking more recent guests, because we’re all trying to build out our reading lists for the year, do you have a recommendation of a book for personal or business inspiration that you like to share?
I’ve been reading a lot of things because of the manumissions. I just read a book a month ago, Begin Again. Begin Again is the story of James Baldwin. If people don’t know who he is, he was a wonderful, extremely talented Black writer back in the 1960s. He wrote many wonderful books. I’m privileged, because my mother was such a voracious reader, and I have inherited all James Baldwin’s books. This book is written by my professor from Princeton, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. It brings us into today, back from the 1960s and describes what James Baldwin went through, but it is also so relevant today with the struggles of our country and race relations.
Sarah Larson: Our agency has been compiling a list of resources, including books to read and documentaries and shows to watch for diversity, equity, and inclusion and anti-racism. We will add that to our list. Robin, I’m so thrilled that you could join me today. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. I’m sure our listeners have, too.
For more DE&I resources, please visit our Diversity, Inclusion, Equity & Anti-Racism Resource Center.
If people are interested in learning more about the deed preservation project or program, or they’re interested in the Adopt-A-Book program or the inscribing of a relative’s name on the inside, how can they find out more? How can people contact you?
They can go to the website at BucksCounty.org and click on the row officers under government and look for the Recorder of Deeds. Everything is on my page. I do Zoom presentations, where I tell the stories of the record books with wonderful pictures and everything. The website also has the fraud alert on there and a lot of other valuable information.
Sarah Larson: Okay, great. We’ll be sure to check that out and hopefully we can check back with you in a few months to see how this project is coming along. It’s so exciting to see that you’re doing this.
Robin Robinson: Well, thank you, Sarah. I would love that.
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