The remarkable story of America’s 1st woman undertaker who helped people escape slavery in coffins

Mildred Europa Taylor April 05, 2022
Henrietta S. Duterte with one of her children who died in infancy. Public domain image

Women had for many years been caregivers to the dead, washing the body or dressing it for home burials. But in the 1800s when the funeral home industry emerged with the rise of embalming, burials became a man’s job.

In 1858, Henrietta Bowers Duterte challenged the gender norms of her time to become America’s first woman undertaker. In other words, she became America’s first African-American funeral homeowner and the first American woman to own a mortuary.

Duterte prospered as a Black entrepreneur in Philadelphia and her funeral business catered to both Blacks and Whites. At the time of her death in 1903, she owned a lot of properties including hearses, horses, carriages, homes and cemeteries. Her business had also become one of the city’s most successful African-American businesses, taking in about $8,000 per year.

While in her funeral business, Duterte was also a major figure in the Underground Railroad helping facilitate the movement of many fugitive slaves from the South. Her business at 838 Lombard Street in Philadelphia became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“Henrietta Bowers Duterte, the first African-American undertaker in Pennsylvania, on several occasions cleverly concealed runaway slaves in caskets,” according to historian Charles L. Blockson. “She also led slaves dressed in northern clothes from Philadelphia to freedom.”

Philadelphia was at the time a final destination for some of the most daring escapes of slaves from the South. Its Underground Railroad network was well organized. The Anti-Slavery Society and many Quakers were located in Philadelphia. The city also had the largest population of free Black people in the North.

Duterte was born in 1817 in the city’s Seventh Ward, which WEB DuBois wrote about as home to some prominent African Americans. Duterte was one of 13 children born to John Bowers and Henrietta Smith Bowers, who were originally from Baltimore, Maryland but came to settle in Philadelphia around 1810. Duterte’s family thrived, with many making it in various fields. Two of her siblings became accomplished singers while one of her brothers was a well-known public speaker who helped found Pennsylvania’s Anti-Slavery Society, as stated by Courier Post.

Duterte herself didn’t do badly in the family’s clothing business. A tailor who made coats, cloaks and capes for the city’s upper and middle class, Duterte married Francis Duterte, a Haitian-born local coffin maker in 1852. They had several children, but none made it past infancy. That didn’t stop Francis Duterte’s activism. He was a member of the Moral Reform Society and became a secretary for the National Colored Convention of 1855, whose theme was economic and social liberty for free Blacks.

He continued to work towards the abolition of slavery until 1858 when he suddenly passed away after an illness. Duterte now had to continue her husband’s funeral business and his work for the abolition of slavery. She made history in the process.

“So far as we find record she was the first woman of any race to engage operatively in undertaking and embalming in this country,” according to author Charles Frederick in 1912. Duterte was also the only female among McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory listing of 63 professional undertakers in 1860. Duterte was praised for her funeral work. The Christian Recorder newspaper said she was “prompt in her business affairs, and sympathizing and accommodating to all — rich or poor.”

Duterte supported the African-American community with profits from her business. She helped financially support the AME Church of St. Thomas by helping pay the pastor’s salary and was on the board of the Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons as a benefactor.

But behind closed doors, Duterte was helping enslaved people escape to freedom. She risked her own life to do so. Even though Philadelphia may have become a haven for fugitive slaves, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. That made helping fugitive slaves in Philadelphia risky since slave catchers were almost everywhere. For each slave that one helped escape, one could get six months in a federal penitentiary.

But knowing that it was difficult for White people to recognize Blacks when they are in different clothing, Duterte was able to clothe fugitive slaves in northern garb, put them in coffins or ask them to join funeral processions in mourning clothes to enable them to get to a safehouse en route to Canada without being noticed.

Duterte continued her funeral business and activism even after the Civil War. Before her death on December 23, 1903, at the age of 83, she transferred the management of the funeral business to her nephew, Joseph T. Seth. Her nephew continued to operate the business until his death in 1927. Duterte is interred in Eden Cemetery, the oldest Black-owned cemetery in Pennsylvania.

No one knows the exact number of enslaved people she helped escape but Kaitlyn Greenidge, who has revived Duterte’s story in her novel, “Libertie,” told Courier Post that “even if it happened just once, it’s still really fascinating.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: April 5, 2022


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