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Henrietta Smith Bowers Duterte

Henrietta Smith Bowers Duterte is the first female undertaker in the nation, was born free in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Henrietta Bowers was a tailor who made capes, coats, and cloaks for the city’s middle and upper classes.  In 1852 at the age of 35 she married Francis Duterte, a Haitian-born local coffin maker. When Henrietta Duterte lost her husband Francis, a coffin builder, undertaker, and business owner, to consumption in 1858, she inadvertently became the country’s first African American woman mortician.  She was a successful too, by any reckoning – having learned the business from her husband, she maintained a business model that recognized the poor and rich on equal footing and provided the black community with a service recognizing dignity and conferring respect to individuals who were so often denied the same in life. Although she remained socially active throughout her life, Duterte gradually transferred the management of the business to her nephew, Joseph T. Seth. By the time of her passing in 1903, the company had become one the city’s most successful African American businesses, taking in about $8,000 per year by burying both blacks and whites.

Henrietta Duterte died in Philadelphia on December 23, 1903.  In the 1903 Register of Deaths in the City of Philadelphia, Duterte is listed as the undertaker for a young African American male who died just two days before her own death. When she died at the age of 83, her estate included the undertaking business, hearses, horses, carriages, burial lots in four cemeteries, and houses. Her nephew continued to operate the business until his death in 1927. She is interred in Eden Cemetery, the oldest black-owned cemetery in Pennsylvania.

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