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Henrietta Smith Bowers Duterte (pronounced Dew-tier) was the first Black and the first female mortician in the United States. Duterte was born free in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1817. She was one of 13 children born to John Bowers and Henrietta Smith Bowers. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, the family relocated to Philadelphia around 1810. Duterte’s father worked as the sexton of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
The family lived in Philadephia’s seventh ward, known as an enclave for many influential black families at that time. One of its most famous residents was W.E.B. DuBois. Duterte worked as a seamstress, making cloaks, capes, and coats for the city’s middle and upper classes. She married Francis Duterte in 1852. He was a coffin maker of Haitian descent. The couple had several children, but all died during infancy.
Francis Duterte was an active member of the Moral Reform Retreat, an organization that supported the abolition of slavery. and equal rights for women. Frances Duterte died in 1858. Henrietta Duterte took over her husband’s funeral business, becoming the first female mortician in Philadelphia and the United States. Like her husband, Henrietta Duterte was also active in seeking the abolition of slavery.
She became involved in the Underground Railroad, often hiding runaways in coffins or placing them in funeral processions. Duterte was also a philanthropist, supporting many charitable causes within Philadelphia’s Black community. Over time, her nephew Joseph T. Seth took over the day-to-day management of the funeral home. Recognized as one of the city’s most successful businesses, it took in approximately $8,000 annually by providing funeral services for black and white residents.
Henrietta Duterte died in 1903. Her nephew continued to operate the business until he died in 1927.
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