Described by the Lewis and Clark website as "one of the nineteenth century's most remarkable and unlikely philanthropists," Elizabeth Denison Forth (1780s–1866) was the first black landowner in America. She was born as a slave, but after making a trip to Canada she managed to gain her freedom. When she returned to the United States she worked for a good family who gave her hints on how to invest her money by putting it into stocks and real estate. By the end of her life she had accrued a considerable fortune and several pieces of real estate, and she left a portion of her fortune to help build a church for people of all races to attend.
Nicknamed Lisette, Forth was born Elizabeth Denison in Macomb County in the 1780s or 1790s—the records are unclear. She was born a slave to slave parents Peter and Hannah Denison. She grew up in Macomb County in Michigan, on the Huron River in Saint Clair. Forth's father worked the land and moved produce up and down the river while her mother served in the household. Forth was the second of six children, and as she grew up she played not only with her brothers and sisters, but also with the white and Native American children that also frequented the land. She never learned to read or write, but she was bright and was said to catch on to ideas very quickly and to have learned the Indian languages. She was even able to serve as a translator at times between the Indians and others who could not understand them. When she was old enough, Forth helped her mother around the house with gardening, cooking, and taking care of the silver and fine dishes.
The Denisons' owner, William Tucker, died in March of 1805, and at that time the family thought that they would all be gaining their freedom. However, in his will Tucker granted the Denison parents their freedom only upon Mrs. Tucker's death. And worst of all, he had given the children to his brother to remain as slaves. Even though Congress had already passed the Northwest Ordinance to prohibit slavery in the new territory—that part of the United States that is modern day Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin—the ordinance applied only to new, not existing, slaves. There was no recourse for the Denisons to protest, and so they remained slaves; the parents remained with Mrs. Tucker while all the children were forced to go work for Mr. Tucker's brother.
After Mrs. Tucker died in 1806 Forth's parents were freed. These two elder Denisons took their first jobs as free citizens of the United States of America, working for the Detroit-based lawyer Elijah Brush. Brush was a good man, and he helped the Denisons sue for custody of their children. When the verdict came back from the Michigan Territorial Supreme Court, however, it was not positive. The court had ruled that all the children would remain slaves for the rest of their lives except for the youngest of the children, who would be freed when he turned 25 because he had been born after the Ordinance took effect. The decision gave the family no option to appeal, but Forth and her siblings refused to give up hope. They felt that with many other similar court cases sweeping the land, one day they would be freed from their forced servitude. In 1807, tired of waiting and being forced to serve others, Forth and her siblings decided to take things into their own hands, and they escaped across the Detroit River into Windsor, Canada.
A short while later all the slaves in Michigan were freed unconditionally. Forth returned to Detroit sometime around 1812 as a free woman. Upon her return, she took a job as a free employee working in the Solomon Sibley household in Detroit. She had a very good relationship with her employers and it is thought that because of them she began investing her money in land and property. She kept a careful record of all her financial transactions, something else that she may have been encouraged to do by her employers. Although she was unable to read, she was very good at numbers and used that skill to aid her financial situation.
She soon amassed a great deal of wealth mainly through investments in stock and real estate, and before long she was looking for other ways to invest her money. Finally, after years of investing in stocks and buildings, on April 21, 1825, Forth bought 48.5 acres of land in Pontiac, Michigan. She bought the land from Pontiac's founder, Stephen Mack, who was the head and founder of the Pontiac Company. This one single transaction gave her a spot in history, for it made her the first black property owner in the United States. She purchased the property as an investment, leasing it to one of her brothers. She sold the property in 1837 for $930. Part of what was once Forth's property became the Oak Hill Cemetery and there was still, in the early twenty-first century, a marker stating that the property had been once owned by Forth.
On September 25, 1827, Forth was married to Scipio Forth. Her marriage was rather short-lived, as her husband died sometime around 1830. After her husband's death she began working full-time for the John Biddle family in 1831. She became close to the Biddles and worked for the family for 30 years. She kept saving her money and investing it in whatever caught her fancy. She bought an interest in the steamboat "Michigan," which was a popular dinner cruise boat at the time. She even managed to acquire some shares in Farmers and Mechanics' Bank, one of the most successful banks in the Detroit area in the 1800s. Both investments were profitable. In 1837 Forth decided to buy another plot of land, this time in Detroit.
Records are lacking about where Forth was for the short period between 1849 and 1854. It is thought that she might have moved to Philadelphia along with the Biddle family, but there is no confirmation of this. It is known, however, that as of 1854 Forth was living in downtown Detroit in her own home. She was not there long when the Biddles contacted her and asked if she would go with them to Paris so she could take care of Mrs. Biddle, who was sick and needed constant care.
She gladly took the Biddles up on their offer and ended up moving with them to Paris in the fall of 1854. Forth enjoyed her time in Paris, and her skill with languages proved to be quite helpful, as she was soon proficient in French. She not only took care of Mrs. Biddle, but was also able to explore the great city, a once-in-a lifetime experience for the ex-slave. But despite the glamour of the city she found herself longing to move back home. She returned in 1856. She lived out the last ten years of her life as a free woman living in her own home in Detroit. She died alone at home on August 7, 1866. She was buried at Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery.
Just before her death, one of the big questions in Forth's later life was who to leave her money and property to, as she had amassed a large number of stocks and other investments over her lifetime. In the end she gave a large amount of money to the Saint James Protestant Episcopal Church and ended up leaving about $1,500 dollars for a chapel to be constructed where blacks and whites, poor and rich, could worship together. The chapel, which was initially funded by Forth, was completed in 1868. In 1958 another building was built with a hallway attaching it to the older chapel. The doors leading into it are dedicated to the memory and benevolence of Elizabeth Denison Forth. The young woman who was born a slave left a grand legacy behind for all to enjoy.
Notable Black American Women , Book 2, Gale Research, 1996.
"Elizabeth Denison Forth Home Site," Michigan Markers , http://www.michmarkers.com/pages/L1860.htm (January 2, 2007).
"Historic Sites: Elizabeth Denison Forth," Wodward Avenue Heritage Sites , http://www.woodwardavenue.us/heritage/sites/view/?viewType=location&location;=Pontiac&id=84 (January 2, 2007).
"What Else Happened," Lewis and Clark , http://www.lewisandclarkandwhatelse.com/lewis_and_clark_what_else/2005/06/index.html (January 2, 2007).