Henrietta S. Bowers Duterte (1817-1903) was a prominent businesswoman and a philanthropist known for her charity fundraising. Born into a well-established free Black family in Philadelphia, her brother, Thomas Bowers, was a well-known opera singer popularly referred to as “the Black Mario.”1 She married Francis A. Duterte, an undertaker who started his own business in 1852.2 The Dutertes were a prominent and well-connected Philadelphia family who exemplified the values of education and hard work that the Black middle class strove to uphold. Such status also included political activism, and Francis Duterte participated in the 1855 National Colored Convention as a delegate.3

Although Black women during this period often learned their husbands’ trades, they rarely owned their own businesses. Yet, when Mrs. Duterte’s husband died of a sudden illness in 1859, she not only inherited her husband’s shop, but successfully managed the business for the next several decades.4 Indeed, she defied the gender norms of the undertaking profession, becoming the first woman in America to operate a mortuary.5 She was extremely successful in this line of work and was noted for being “prompt in her business affairs, and sympathizing and accommodating to all—rich or poor.”6

Henrietta Duterte used her business for more than just profit; it also enabled her to hide fugitive slaves from detection. She literally turned her trade into a vehicle for emancipation. As a member of the Underground Railroad, she often hid runaways in coffins or disguised them as part of funeral processions to ensure their safe passage.7 Additionally, she used her business profits to support the Black community through philanthropic projects. She contributed financially to the First Colored Church in Philadelphia and raised money to pay the pastor of Allen Chapel’s salary.8 She also fundraised on behalf of Stephen Smith’s Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons and helped to organize the 1866 Freedman’s Aid Society Fair to aid free Blacks in Tennessee.9

While she remained socially active throughout her life, she gradually transferred the management of her business to her nephew, Joseph Seth, who continued to operate it after her death.10 She died on December 23, 1903, at the age of eighty-six and was buried in Eden Cemetery.11 Recently, H.S. Duterte has garnered increased attention from scholars, resulting in her re-inscription within the history of Black business and abolitionism in Philadelphia.


Submitted anonymously, University of Delaware.

Edited by Carolyne King, English 641, Spring 2016. Taught by P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware.


  1. “About Persons and Things.” Plaindealer 28 Nov. 1890: 4 African American Newspapers. Web.17 March, 2013.
  2. White, Charles Frederick. Who’s who in Philadelphia: A Collection of Thirty Biographical Sketches of Philadelphia Colored People. Philadelphia: A. M. E. Book Concern, 1912: 84.
  3. Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, Philadelphia, 1855. Salem, New Jersey: National Standard Office, 1856. Print.
  4. “Large Funeral-Sudden Death.” The Liberator 25 March 1859: 2. America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 17 March, 2013; 
  5. Walker, Juliet E. K. The History of Black Business in American: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship. Second ed. Volume 1, to 1865. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009:166.
  6. “Undertaking.” The Christian Recorder 8 March 1862. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March, 2013.
  7. Blockson, Charles L. Philadelphia: 1639-2000- Black America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2000:47. Etheridge, Lesley Gist. The Gist of Freedom is Still Faith. The Gist of Freedom: David Lubell, 2005.108.
  8. “Acknowledgement.” The Christian Recorder 20 July 1867. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March, 2013. Gould, T. Rev. “A Happy New Year.” The Christian Recorder 18 Jan. 1877. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March, 2013.
  9. “Brief Editorials” The Christian Recorder 19 Feb. 1870. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March, 2013. “Freedmen’s Fair.” The Christian Recorder 30 June 1866. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March 2013. “Home for Aged and Inform Colored Persons” The Christian Recorder 9 Oct. 1884. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March, 2013. “Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons.” The Christian Recorder 19 June 1884. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March, 2013. Our Own Reporter. “Philadelphia Matters.” The Christian Recorder 8 April 1880. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March, 2013. “Stephen Smith’s Birthday.” The Christian Recorder 23 Oct. 1890. African American Newspapers. Web. 16 March, 2013.
  10. “Felicia Blue.” Find a Grave. 17 Mar. 2009. Web. 18 March, 2013.
  11. “Died-Duterte” Philadelphia Inquirer 27 December 1903. African American Newspapers. Web. 17 March, 2013. “Henrietta S. Duterte.” Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915. Prove, UT, USA: Ancestry. Com Operations, Inc., 2011. Web. 16 March, 2013.