Elizabeth Denison, or Lisette, born a slave in Macomb County, Michigan, won her freedom by escaping to Canada and then returned to Detroit to work for prominent families. Through shrewd investments and careful purchasing she became one of the first black landowners in America, bequeathing part of her fortune to help build the St. James Episcopal Church chapel on Grosse Ile where people of all colors could worship.
Lisette was born in the 1780s or 1790s, the second of the six children of Peter and Hannah Denison who were the slaves of William Tucker. Tucker owned land on the Huron (later renamed the Clinton River) River in Saint Clair in Macomb County. Lisette’s father Peter worked the land and floated produce up and down the river for William Tucker while her mother Hannah served Catherine Tucker in the house. 
Lisette played with her brothers and sisters and with the white and Indian children who lived around her and although she never learned to read or write, she was keenly intelligent and quickly learned the Indian languages so well that whites and Indians often asked her to interpret for them. As she grew up, Lisette helped her mother with household chores, gardening, cooking, and caring for the silver and fine dishes.
William Tucker, the Denison’s owner, died in March 1805, and the Denisons believed that all of them would be freed. Then they learned the provisions of Tucker’s will which stipulated that the Denison parents would gain their freedom only when Catherine Tucker died and their six children were bequeathed to his brother as slaves. The Denison parents stayed with Catherine Tucker and their children were forced to live and work for William Tucker’s brother.
Catherine Tucker died in 1806, and Peter and Hannah Dennison were freed and went to work for Detroit lawyer Elijah Brush who had just been accepted to practice law in the Michigan Territorial Supreme Court. He helped them sue for their children’s freedom under the Northwest Ordinance which prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory. Congress had already passed the Northwest Ordinance prohibiting slavery in its territory – modern Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin- but the ordinance only applied to new and not existing slaves. In 1807, the Michigan Supreme Court heard the case, and ruled that only the Denison children born after the Northwest Ordinance took effect could be freed.
Over the next few months in another Michigan Territorial Supreme Court decision, Judge Augustus B. Woodward ruled that the Michigan Territory was not obligated to return slaves freed by establishing residence in Canada to slavery, setting a legal precedent that opened the doors to freedom for many fugitive slaves. Quickly, Lisette and her brother crossed the Detroit River into Windsor, Canada to establish residency and win their freedom. Some accounts say that Lisette and her brother returned to Detroit in 1812, while others say they didn’t arrive back in America until 1815. Whatever date they returned, they returned as free people and Lisette took a job as a free maid working in the household of Solomon Sibley in Detroit.
By all accounts Lisette got along well with her employers, so well that they gave her advice about investing her money in stocks and real estate. Although she couldn’t read or write, Lisette had an aptitude for numbers and she kept careful records of all of her financial transactions. On April 21, 1825, Lisette bought 48.5 acres of land in Pontiac, Michigan, from Stephen Mack, Pontiac’s founder and head of the Pontiac Company. This single purchase earned her the title of first black property owner in the city and the country. She never lived in Pontiac; instead, she leased the property to her brother and in 1837, she sold it for $930 dollars. Her property is now part of Oak Hill Cemetery, and a State of Michigan historical marker celebrates her former ownership of the property.
According to the records of St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Detroit, Lisette married Scipio Forth, the owner of a freight business, on September 25, 1827. The records are unclear as to exactly when, but it appears that Scipio Forth died around 1830.
In 1831, Lisette began working full time for the John Biddle family. John Biddle was the mayor of Detroit and founder of Wyandotte, Michigan, and she spent much of her time at Biddle’s Wyandotte estate. She developed close ties with the Biddles, especially the mayor’s wife, Eliza Biddle, and stayed in their employ for the next 30 years.
All of the time Lisette worked for the Biddle family, she continued to save and invest her money in things that appealed to her. She bought an interest in the steamboat Michigan, a popular cruise ship of the time and she acquired 20 shares in the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, a successful Detroit bank in the 1800s.
Grosse Ile historian, Isabella Swan wrote about Lisette’s steamboat and bank investments. “Due to heavy passenger traffic during westward migration the Michigan earned enormous profits – as high as 80 percent in one year. The bank also prospered. Its stock soared to great heights in 1836 when a 30 percent dividend was paid.”
In 1837, Lisette decided to buy another piece of land, only this time in Detroit instead of Pontiac. On May 25, 1837, she bought a lot in Detroit, paying the mortgage off in installments. The historical record doesn’t reveal much about Lisette’s whereabouts between 1849 and 1854. She may have moved to Philadelphia with the Biddle family, but there is no definitive proof of this. The record does show that in 1854, Lisette was living at 14 Macomb Street at the edge of the business section in old Detroit. She had not been there long when the Biddle family contacted her asking her to join them in Paris to attend Mrs. Biddle who was ill and needed constant care. By now, Lisette and Eliza Biddle were close friends, sharing their Episcopalian faith and vowing to build a chapel.
Arriving in Paris in the late fall of 1854, Lisette quickly became proficient in French and gained fame for her buckwheat cakes. Although she enjoyed her time in Paris exploring the city and savoring its glamour, she longed to move back home. Returning to Michigan in 1856, Lisette began working for John Biddle’s son, William S. Biddle, at his Grosse Ile estate.
Over the years, Lisette devoted much time and thought to the fate of her assets, since she was a childless widow, and she updated her will several times. Her friends appreciated her kindness and generosity to them, but they noted that as Lisette grew older, she pinched pennies with miserly fingers and worried that she would outlive her money. Lisette Denison Forth died on August 7, 1866, shortly after Eliza Biddle and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
When her family and friends learned the contents of Lisette’s will, many of them were surprised that she had so much instead of so little money and more surprised at what she did with most of it. Lisette willed part of her estate to her family, but the rest of it, about $3,000, she earmarked to be used to build the Episcopalian chapel that she and Eliza Biddle had planned together.
Lisette had not specified where exactly the chapel would be built in her will, but William Biddle, her long-time employer decided that she would want it on Grosse Ile. Her money provided most of the funds for St. James Episcopal Church on Grosse Ile, but following his mother’s wishes, William Biddle combined some of his own and his mother’s money with Lisette’s contribution. His brother James Biddle donated land for the chapel and the brother hired architect Gordon W. Lloyd to design the church. James also built an altar cross, a kneeling bench, and a reading stand for the minister. The construction began in 1867 and was completed in 1868, with the first service conducted by Reverend Moses Hunter in the spring of 1868. In 1958, another building was built with a hallway connecting it to the older chapel and the red doors leading into it are dedicated to Elizabeth Denison Forth.
 Historic Elmwood Cemetery Foundation
 Notable Black American Women, Book II. Jessie Carney Smith, Editor. Detroit: Gale Books, 1996
 Isabella Swan, Lisette. Grosse Ile, Michigan, 1965