New Pontiac mural honors city’s first Black property owner

Elizabeth Denison Forth is the first Black property owner in Pontiac

Pontiac honors first black land owner in Michigan with a mural.

PONTIAC, Mich. – The city of Pontiac is honoring a woman who started life enslaved in Macomb County and then did something no Black person had ever done before, purchase her own property.

She escaped to Canada and returned as a free woman.

In 1825, several years before Michigan was even a state, Elizabeth Denison Forth purchased 48.5 acres of land from the founder of Pontiac, Stephen Mack. That property is now part of Oak Hill Cemetery.

At the cemetery, there is a road named after her and a state historical marker, but artist Zach Curtis wanted to do something more. Curtis painted a 60-foot-tall mural in Forth’s honor; it’s his biggest project yet.

The idea came about after deciding this mural would be a tribute to the historical figure in Pontiac.

“I definitely kind of did my research and we kind of narrowed it down to kind of three different people and it was kind of like, a slam dunk. It was just like, like, this is perfect,” said Curtis.

Curtis took it upon himself to really get this project going.

“I’ve always wanted to paint this wall and I was kind of getting tired of waiting so I just took it upon myself. So I got into contact with the building owner raising the funds myself,” Curtis said.

In just a month, he raised $12,000, thanks to the community and sponsors like Main Street Pontiac and Main Street Rocks of Durand, Michigan.

Curtis spent two and a half weeks painting the mural; often times painting for more than 12 hours. He said every minute was worth it.

“While you’re painting this you’re kind of like taking in what it stands for, what it means for the community,” said Curtis.

For Pontiac city councilwoman Melanie Rutherford it means hope.

As somebody who is trying to be a homeowner, and I’m not just saying it for the camera, it’s really every time I ride past this, I smile a little bit because I know that my day is coming and I’m going to own a piece of the American dream as well,” said Rutherford.

Mayor Tim Greimel said Pontiac is in its comeback and this mural represents just that.

“Her (Forth) life is a story of rebirth, it’s a story of successfully aspiring to greater things. And that really is the story of Pontiac,” Greimel said.

Greimel said that rebirth includes being a place for an economic opportunity like it was for Forth all those years ago.

Next time you pass through Pontiac, you may look over and see Forth’s face. Rutherford said she hopes more people, especially young people, dare to ask who she is.

“Some little girl asks, ‘who is that a black woman?’ And when they say that, they say honey that’s Elizabeth Denison Forth was the first to own houses, she own property and she’s a strong black woman,” Rutherford said.

If you want to check out the mural, it’s near the Riker Building on Huron Street in downtown Pontiac.

You can also find pieces of Forth’s legacy in other spots in the area; when she died, she donated money to build the St. James Episcopal Chapel on Grosse Ile.

About the Author:

Megan Woods is thrilled to be back home and reporting at Local 4. She joined the team in September 2021. Before returning to Michigan, Megan reported at stations across the country including Northern Michigan, Southwest Louisiana and a sister station in Southwest Virginia.