Women had been caring for the deceased for many years, cleaning and dressing bodies for home burials. Burials became a man’s work in the 1800s when the funeral home industry arose with the rise of embalming.
Henrietta Bowers Duterte became America’s first female undertaker in 1858, defying gender standards at the period. In other words, she was the first African-American funeral homeowner in the United States, as well as the first American woman to own a mortuary.
Duterte made a name for herself as a Black businesswoman in Philadelphia, where she ran a funeral home that catered to both Blacks and Whites. She owned many properties at the time of her death in 1903, including hearses, horses, carriages, mansions, and cemeteries. Her company had also become one of the most profitable African-American enterprises in the city, bringing in around $8,000 each year.
Duterte was a key figure in the Underground Railroad while running her funeral home, assisting in the transfer of numerous escaped slaves from the South. Her Philadelphia store at 838 Lombard Street became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
According to historian Charles L. Blockson, “Henrietta Bowers Duterte, the first African-American undertaker in Pennsylvania, cleverly concealed escaping slaves in caskets on many occasions.” “She also guided slaves clothed in northern garb to freedom from Philadelphia.”
At the time, Philadelphia was a final destination for some of the most daring slave escapes from the South. It had a well-organized Underground Railroad system. Philadelphia was home to the Anti-Slavery Society and a large number of Quakers. In addition, the city had the most free Black people in the North.
Duterte was born in 1817 in the city’s Seventh Ward, which was once home to numerous important African Americans, according to WEB DuBois. John Bowers and Henrietta Smith Bowers, who originated from Baltimore, Maryland, but settled in Philadelphia before 1810, had 13 children, including Duterte. Duterte’s family prospered, with numerous members succeeding in a variety of fields. According to the Courier Post, two of her siblings were outstanding singers, and one of her brothers was a well-known public speaker who helped form Pennsylvania’s Anti-Slavery Society.
In the family’s apparel business, Duterte performed quite well. Duterte married Francis Duterte, a Haitian-born local coffin manufacturer, in 1852. He was a tailor who created coats, cloaks, and capes for the city’s high and middle classes. They had several children, but none of them survived childhood. Francis Duterte’s activism was unaffected by this. He was a member of the Moral Reform Society and served as the secretary of the 1855 National Colored Convention, which focused on economic and social independence for free Blacks.
He continued to strive for the abolition of slavery until his death in 1858 when he succumbed to an illness. Duterte was now responsible for her husband’s funeral business as well as his work to abolish slavery. In the process, she made history.
According to author Charles Frederick in 1912, “so far as we can discover documentation, she was the first woman of any race to engage operatively in undertaking and embalming in this nation.” In McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory listing of 63 professional undertakers in 1860, Duterte was the only female. Duterte was lauded for her work in the funeral industry. She was “quick in her commercial operations, and sympathizing and courteous to all – rich or poor,” according to the Christian Recorder newspaper.
Duterte donated income from her business to the African-American community. She was a benefactor on the board of the Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons and helped financially support the AME Church of St. Thomas by helping to pay the pastor’s salary.
Duterte, on the other hand, was assisting enslaved individuals in escaping to freedom behind closed doors. She put her own life on the line to do so. Despite the fact that Philadelphia became a shelter for fleeing slaves, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 compelled slaves to be returned to their masters, even if they were in a free state. Because slave catchers were practically everywhere in Philadelphia, assisting escaped slaves was perilous. One might be sentenced to six months in federal prison for each slave they assisted in escaping.
Knowing that it was difficult for White people to recognize Black people when they were dressed differently, Duterte was able to dress fugitive slaves in northern garb, place them in coffins, or ask them to join funeral processions dressed in mourning clothes in order for them to get to a safehouse en route to Canada without being noticed.
Even after the Civil War, Duterte continued her funeral business and campaigning. She transferred the funeral business administration to her nephew, Joseph T. Seth, before her death on December 23, 1903, at the age of 83. Her nephew kept the firm going until his death in 1927. Duterte is buried in Eden Cemetery, Pennsylvania’s oldest Black-owned cemetery.
No one knows how many enslaved persons she assisted in their escape, but Kaitlyn Greenidge, who has resurrected Duterte’s story in her novel “Libertie,” told the Courier Post that “even if it happened only once, it’s still extremely amazing.”