Elizabeth “Lisette” Denison was born into slavery circa 1787 near the banks of the Huron River, now called the Clinton, in the area known today as Harrison Township. Her parents, Peter and Hannah, were owned by William Tucker, the first English-speaking landowner in Macomb County.
In the spring of 1784, Tucker built a large double-hewn log house for his new bride and slaves along the banks of the river on the Old North River Road. The home, still standing today, is one of the oldest documented dwellings in Michigan.
Peter worked the land while his wife, Hannah, worked as a servant. Lisette was born in the Tucker home and grew up on the river where she learned the Chippewa language.
When William Tucker died in 1805, his will stipulated that, upon the death of his wife Catherine, Peter and Hannah would be freed, while their children remained slaves. In 1806, Catherine bonded out Peter and Hannah for one year to Elijah Brush in Detroit. After that year, they were “to enjoy their freedom,” rather than wait for her demise which did not occur until 1848. In 1807, Peter was named commander of a militia unit consisting of about 36 African-American enslaved or free men by Gov. William Hull, making him the first black leader in Detroit.
Represented by Brush in 1807, the Denisons sued Catherine Tucker for their four children’s freedom. The Denison vs. Tucker case was heard by Judge Augustus Woodward. Unfortunately for the Denison family, the law at that time read, “All slaves living on the 31st day of May 1793 in the possession of settlers in this territory on the 11th day of July 1796, continue such for life.” This ruling denied all but the youngest Denison child his freedom.
One month later, Judge Woodward decided In the matter of Richard Pattinson that the Michigan Territory was not bound to return slaves to Canadian owner Richard Pattinson. The ruling against Pattison encouraged the Denisons. In 1807, they escaped by following the Clinton River to the area where the Breitmeyer Greenhouses once stood (near the trestles in Mount Clemens) enroute to Canada by way of Detroit. After establishing residency in Canada, they were able to return to the Michigan Territory sometime around 1812 as free persons.
Lisette worked for several prominent families in Detroit, and invested in real estate and stocks. She became the first woman of color to become a property owner in Pontiac and possibly the Michigan Territory.
In 1827, Lisette married Scipio Forth, who died only a few years later. She then became Major John Biddle’s housekeeper, where she worked for over 30 years. She travelled to Europe with the family, and it was here that she learned to speak French. Her buckwheat griddle cakes created quite a stir in France and one ambassador’s chef became quite indignant when Lisette’s cooking was preferred over hers.
Lisette passed away in 1866. She left $750 to her nephews and nieces, and the remainder of her estate, approximately $1,500, was to be utilized to build a chapel. Her wish was to address the “inadequacy of the provisions made for the poor in our houses of worship.” With supplemental land and funds donated by the Biddle family, the St. James Episcopal Church was built in 1867.
Lisette lead a remarkable life that began as a slave and ended as a philanthropist. She is buried in the Strangers Ground section of Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Cynthia S. Donahue is a historian for Macomb County Facilities and Operations. This article was featured in Macomb Matters in February 2013.