August 5, 2021

Henrietta Bowers Duterte – First Black Female Funeral Home Owner In 1800s

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History lived a woman named Henrietta Duterte who became the first African American woman to own and operate a funeral home in the United States of America.


Henrietta Duterte was born Henrietta Bowers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the year of 1817 to free African American parents John and Henrietta Bowers. She was named after her mother, and she was one of thirteen children, three of which became well known musicians – Thomas Bowers (The Colored Mario), Sarah Sedgwick Bowers (The Colored Nightingale) and John Bowers (church organist and tailor (entrepreneur). She grew up in an affluent Black neighborhood in Philadelphia with her family.

She married her husband Francis A. Duterte in 1852, a Haitian-born entrepreneur who owned and operated his own undertaking, or funeral home, business. He had also worked as a cabinet maker [1] as he was very good with his hands. They were about the same age, only separated by one year, him being the older. Unfortunately, he passed away on March 12, 1859, and Henrietta Duterte became the owner of the funeral home, making her the first African American female owner of a funeral home, or mortuary, in the United States of America.

There was always a need for black funeral homes and cemeteries due to segregation. Black people were excluded from anything pertaining to white people, including in death. Her funeral home was a necessity in the city of Philadelphia for the African American community.

The funeral home was located on 632 and h 838 Lombard Street in Philadelphia [2]. As an undertaker, Henrietta S. Duterte had other members of her family who were talented in working with her in the complete function of the funeral home – her sister Sarah Bell who was a dressmaker as well as her nephew Joseph Seth who was a clothier[3].

Henrietta Duterte’s Abolitionist Work

What was distinct about Henrietta Duterte’s funeral home was that it doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. This was one way she gave back to her African American people who needed so much assistance during slavery and afterwards. Those who were escaping slavery became fugitives, and Henrietta Duterte is said to have used the coffins of her funeral home, which grossed approximately $8000 a year (over $200,000 in today’s dollar), for those Black people who were on the run. She allowed them to hide inside the coffins during funeral processions until the escapees were safe[4].

Henrietta Bowers Duterte’s Philanthropic Work

.She also devoted her time to various philanthropic activities with the church to give back to the Black community through associations she was a part of in order to feed help the elderly and poor. She was the treasurer of the association formed at Bethel Church in Philadelphia in 1884 [5].

Henrietta Duterte’s Death

Died at 86 years old on December 23, 1903. Ownership of the funeral home passed to her nephew John Seth. Henrietta died with no children because they’d all passed away as infants when her husband was alive.

She is buried in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale Pennsylvania and it is the oldest African American owned cemetery in the United States of America, being founded on June 20, 1902. This is the same cemetery where her husband was buried at his death. Her funeral was held at her own home located at 517 South 9th Street[6] which she’d paid $13,000 for in 1898 [7].

Sources

  • [1]Year: 1850; Census Place: Philadelphia Spruce Ward, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: 813; Page: 351a
  • [2]Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
  • [3]Year: 1880; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1170; Page: 10D; Enumeration District: 114
  • [4]Philadelphia Daily News (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)01 Feb 1988, Mon Page 41
  • [5]The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)25 Dec 1903, Fri Page 5
  • [6]The Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 29 May 1886, Sat Page 8
  • [7]The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 01 Jan 1898, Sat Page 5
  • Public Domain Photo of Henrietta Duterte via Wikipedia