Henrietta Smith Bowers Duterte became the nation’s first Black female undertaker 160 years ago. Along with this historic feat, Duterte was also an essential cog in the Underground Railroad system.
Henrietta Smith Bowers Duterte was born to the Bowers family in July 1817 in Philadelphia as one of 13 children. The affluent, free Black family lived in the city’s “Seventh Ward” district made famous by W.E.B. Du Bois, who studied the region as part of his “The Philadelphia Negro” report.
Duterte began her career as a tailor and married Haitian-American undertaker Francis Duterte in 1852.
After her husband’s passing in 1858, Duterte assumed the role of running her spouse’s business, which at time defied gender and societal norms. Mr. Duterte was involved in the abolition of slavery, passing on the activism to his wife who aided the Underground Railroad operation. She would hide fugitive slaves attempting to avoid recapture by hiding them in coffins, or disguising them as funeral attendees.
By the time of her passing in December 1903, Duterte’s business earned around $8,000 annually, which would translate into well over $200,000 today, which made it one of the most successful Black-owned ventures of that era.