Looking Back: Elizabeth Denison Forth/ `Lisette'

Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published February 15, 2017

By Kim Parr, director of the Macomb County Historical Society & Crocker House Museum

It’s hard to imagine that there were ever any slaves this far north in Michigan. But there were. Elizabeth Denison Forth, who was known as Lisette, was born into slavery in the 1780s. She was owned by the Tucker family who lived in the area of what we now know as Selfridge Air National Guard Base. She was the second of six children born to her slave parents, Peter and Hannah Denison. Her father worked the land and helped to move produce up and down the river while her mother served in the household. Lisette grew up with her siblings, white children and the local Native American children from whom she learned to speak the native tongue.

As Lisette grew up, she helped her mother around the household and with gardening. Their owner, William Tucker, granted in his will that the Denison parents would gain their freedom after his wife passed away. The children were to be given to his brother to remain as slaves. Congress had already passed the Northwest Ordinance to prohibit slavery in this territory that included what are now Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. This new law only applied to those who were born after the law passed. This new law meant that the Denison children would remain as slaves for the rest of their lives. After Mrs. Tucker passed away in 1806, Peter and Hannah Denison were freed. They then went to work for Elijah Brush, who was a lawyer in Detroit. This good man helped them sue for the custody of their children.

Unfortunately, the law would only allow for the youngest to be made free, for he was born after the Northwest Ordinance was passed. He would not gain this freedom until he turned the age of 25. Lisette and her siblings decided to escape by crossing the river into Canada. It was not long thereafter that all slaves in Michigan were to be freed without any conditions. In 1812, Lisette went to Detroit in search of finding employment. Solomon Sibley hired Lisette to help with the household. While working for the Sibley family, she began to invest the money she was earning into land and property. She invested in stocks, buildings and in 1825 purchased over 48 acres of land in Pontiac, Michigan. Lisette is considered to be the first woman of color to have been a land owner in Michigan. She leased the land in Pontiac to one of her brothers and then sold the property in 1837 for $930. Part of this property became Oak Hill Cemetery, where there is a marker stating that the property was owned by her. During her life, she invested in many things that included a steamboat used for dinner cruises called the “Michigan.” She also acquired stock in the Farmers and Mechanics Bank. The profits she made allowed her to invest in land in Detroit.

Lisette married Scipio Forth on Sept. 25, 1827. Unfortunately, her husband died around the year 1830. After his death, she began working for the Biddle family. She worked for them for over 30 years. There are no records indicating where Lisette lived between 1849 and 1854, but she may have moved with the Biddles to Philadelphia during this time. It is known that she was living in downtown Detroit in her own home during the year of 1854 before she agreed to move to Paris with the Biddle family. There she learned to speak French.

She returned to Michigan in 1856 and lived the last 10 years of her life as a free woman living in her own home in Detroit. She passed away on Aug. 7, 1866, and is buried in stranger’s ground at Elmwood Cemetery. Just before Lisette passed away, she willed a large amount of money to the St. James Protestant Episcopal Church on Grosse Ile. She gave the church $1,500 for a chapel to be constructed where people of all colors and walks of life could worship together. The chapel was completed in 1868, and the doors leading to the chapel are dedicated to the memory of this incredible woman.