Black History Makers: Henrietta Duterte

Henrietta Duterte

Henrietta Smith Bowers Duterte, was born free to John and Henrietta Smith Bowers sometime in July of 1817.

She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was one of 13 children. Her family was well to do, and several of the children did very well for themselves. Two of them (Thomas and Sarah Bowers) were world renowned singers, another (John C. Bowers) an organist and entrepreneur. The family ran a tailoring business for the city’s middle and upper classes.

In 1852, she married Francis Duterte, a coffin maker. They had several children, but none survived infancy. Their marriage ended abruptly in 1858 when Duterte’s husband passed suddenly from illness. She defied gender roles by assuming ownership of his undertaking business, and became the first female undertaker in the nation.

Duterte provided her services quickly, a much-needed skill prior to embalming becoming popular. She also sympathized and worked with everyone White and Black. She was successful for decades prior to transferring the business to her nephew before passing, and leaving a wealthy estate behind. However, Duterte risked her livelihood for the sake of runaway slaves.

Philadelphia was an important stop along the underground railroad. Henrietta would hide runaways in coffins or use her tailoring skillset to fashion clothes worn by Northerners. She would provide them with disguises, sometimes cross-dressing them, and having them blend in with funeral processions, walking right out of town to freedom.

Cemeteries were segregated at that time, so it is believed that once a slave faked their death, no one would go and check for fear of contamination. It is also said to have worked because once slaves changed their clothing, their owners had a hard time distinguishing their features and recognizing who they were.

Henrietta used her wealth to fund African American organizations in the city. Including the AME Church of St. Thomas, Stephen Smith‘s Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirmed Colored Persons, and helped establish the Freedman’s Aid Society Fair to assist formerly enslaved people in 1866.

Henrietta Duterte died in Philadelphia on December 23, 1903, leaving behind one of the most lucrative African American businesses in the city.

“To be able to determine when and how to bury and mourn your dead is an act of autonomy and self-expression for a community that is denied personhood by the larger civic and social systems at every turn. Because segregation in the United States runs even into the grave, black-owned funeral homes have often been the only places black people could turn to when burying their dead.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge