A huge number of African-American women were born into slavery and Lisette Denison Forth is one of them. From Michigan, Lisette was born a slave and she worked as a maid for many years before rising to become a landowner and philanthropist.
Being born to enslaved parents – Peter and Hannah Denison – Lisette grew up enslaved in the Detroit River hinterlands with no formal education.
Despite her status as a slave, she became Detroit’s first black landowner in the 1820s.
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After a ruling by the Michigan Territory Supreme Court in 1807 stated that escaped slaves in Canada could not be returned to slavery in the United States, Lisette sought freedom by escaping with one of her brothers to Canada.
There is little about her marital life but Lisette was reportedly married to Scipio Forth. She was noted for her cooking skills. She could sew and that landed her a seamstress job where she sewed for notable families like Eliza Biddle.
She soon gained recognition not only as a great cook but as a housekeeper and a nanny.
According to Tiya Miles’ book “The Dawn of Detroit—A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of Straits”, in 1855, she accompanied Biddle to Paris and was the toast of Paree with her buckwheat pancakes.
Due to her ability and skills to do business, she was able to save so much from her earnings from these jobs to purchase land.
As she aged, Lisette increased her savings and land ownership and hired her former employee’s son, William Biddle, who was an attorney and graduate of Harvard University, to oversee her estate.
She ordered William to divide her savings among her living relatives, mainly nieces and nephews between $50 and $100 apiece.
Tiya Miles wrote that Lisette “derived much of her wealth … from investments in land that Michigan governors William Hull and Lewis Cass had wrested from the families of the Wyandot, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ojibwe nations.”
More interesting is the fact that the only existing original portrait of Lisette, according to Miles, still hangs today in a church made possible by a woman once enslaved in Detroit on land illegally purchased by Detroit’s largest slaveholder.
With the support of donors, Lisette’s vision of building a church was made a reality by her executor who saw to the completion and consecration of Saint James Episcopal Church in 1868.
The church, said the bishop Samuel Allen McCoskry “is the fruit of a life of toil and service of a faithful colored servant of Christ. She had, for years, husbanded her earnings for this purpose, and, long before she was called away from her life of probation, had solemnly devoted them to the Church of Christ.
“This was done in connection with the design of one, whom she had, long and faithfully served, to unite with her in the holy act. Providential circumstances having prevented the accomplishment of the wish of this person, it was faithfully carried out by two of her sons, who liberally supplied the funds required to complete the church; and it now stands, in all its simplicity and beauty, as the joint act of a Christian household, to provide a house of prayer for the rich and poor.”
No writing can actually measure the extent to which Lisette’s effort paved the way for the generation of African-Americans who later arrived in Detroit as fugitive slaves.
A year after the Civil War ended, Lisette died and was buried in Detroit’s historic Elmwood Cemetery.