MI Black History Month: A First for Freedom

Q: Who was Peter Denison?

A: Denison, who has been called the first leader of Detroit’s African-American community, was likely the first person to sue for freedom from slavery in the United States. Denison is first mentioned in historical records in 1784, when he and his wife, Hannah, were listed as an enslaved people under the ownership of William Tucker in what is now Macomb County. When Tucker died, his will said that Peter and Hannah would be freed upon the death of Tucker’s wife, but that Tucker’s children would be owned by his heirs. In 1807, Denison brought suit in territorial court to gain his children’s freedom. Even though the Michigan Territory outlawed slavery, Denison lost. Based on the interpretation of various treaties and laws, Judge Augustus Woodward ruled that three of their children must remain enslaved for life and one could be emancipated after his 25th birthday. However, in a subsequent ruling, Woodward said that if African-Americans established their freedom in Canada, they could not be returned to slavery upon return to the U.S. Two of Denison’s children, Scipio and Elizabeth, took advantage of this ruling by escaping to Canada for a few years and then returning to the United States as free citizens.

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