Escape Through Death is a project I produced for Damn Joan’s “Happy Death” issue, chronicling the story of Henrietta Duterte, a Philadelphia undertaker who smuggled people escaping slavery through the city hidden in coffins. The mighty Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote a piece weaving her personal story and deep historical understanding with the events of Henrietta’s life, and we worked with the team at Mighty Oak to make the above video. Special shout to Lauren Teng, who was the heart and soul of every piece of media we made, a magic person. Transcript for the video is here.
Excerpt from Escape Through Death
by Kaitlyn Greenidge
For enslaved people, the journey from life to death was often a way to talk about freedom, about liberation, in metaphor. It was a journey they knew intimately. The parallels are most striking in the story of Henrietta Duterte—a daring woman who used her undertaking business to smuggle escaped slaves to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad. The image of Duterte hiding fugitives in coffins is an enduring one—the provocative connection of life and death, the question of liberation, and the idea of great transformation coming from what, to the outside world, appears to be a moment of lowest tragedy. How I wish I’d known about Duterte as a teenager—she would surely have become my lifelong heroine.
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Like many Americans, when I first learned about slavery and the Underground Railroad, I flattered myself by believing that I would have had the courage to resist, the determination and the faith to fight to end slavery by any means necessary. I like to think I would have been as brave as Duterte, to put my business and my life at risk in order to save others. I love the Harriet Tubman legend that she traveled with a pistol to protect herself from slave catchers and also to encourage those who momentarily lost faith to keep going. She would supposedly cock her pistol to those who quailed and say, “Dead negroes tell no tales.”
I imagine that in every coffin Henrietta moved, there were similar moments of very real terror, doubt, and resignation. They are a part of any path toward liberation, especially in a world that conspires to make sure you stay unfree. Knowing this reminds me that I am not exceptional in my moments of fear or hesitation. Many more who’ve passed before me have had them too.
I am continually surprised by the ingenuity of our ancestors and their ability to take the fewest possible resources and create a living thing. We can take death and use it to save lives. From our limited resources, whole realms of art, of culture, of music, of literature, of language have sprung forth, ones so rich and valuable that people all over the world try to steal them—including, especially, the very people who make it a point of telling us we are useless. Your living neighbors won’t give you a place at the inn. No matter. You will sleep among the graves of your kinfolk and dream up another possibility, one your antagonists never, ever, could conceive as possible.