Former Sen. Thelma Harper, first African American woman to serve in State Senate, dies at 80

Posted at 1:30 PM, Apr 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-22 23:48:40-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Former State Sen. Thelma Harper, the first African American woman to serve in the State Senate, has passed away. She was 80 years old.

Senate Democrats confirmed her death to NewsChannel 5 on Thursday.

Harper entered the Senate in 1991, winning Nashville's 19th Senate District in the 1990 election. She also became the first woman to preside over the Senate and spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.

Thelma Harper
State Sen. Thelma Harper of Nashville, Tenn., speaks at a press conference by Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, urging Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to call a special session to use surplus revenues to halt tuition hikes in at public universities and colleges. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

She was the longest-serving female State Senator in Tennessee history, having held her position until 2018. Harper spoke with NewsChannel 5 on her final day in Senate as she packed up boxed from her office, embraced coworkers and signed her last proclamation.

The Davidson County native was also behind the proposal to rename part of Eighth Avenue for civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. She's known for her focus on youth, the elderly and women's rights during her 28-year career in the state senate.

Harper was born and raised in Brentwood before earning her degree at Tennessee State University. She began her political career in 1977 when she was appointed Grand Jury Foreman to the Davidson County 5th District Court. In 1983, she became the second African American woman elected to Nashville Metro Council. Harper represented the 2nd District for eight years.

But former Pastor James "Tex" Thomas of the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, who knew Harper well, says her power became apparent during the civil rights protests of the 1960s.

"Marching in the '60s, she was there," Thomas said. "Take it from me, in the movement, she was there."

Thomas says he thinks the Black Lives Matter movements of today were paved in part because of the movement that Harper was part of in the '60s.

"I look at our young folk today, the Black Lives Matter, I'm so proud when I see them marching," Thomas said. "Because I see our immortality, that's what I see, our immortality, her immortality, in those children."

Known for wearing many beaded, feathered, patterned hats during her time as a senator, Harper said she grew up wearing hats at a young age. She collected more than 100 hats while in office.

Former Vice President Al Gore released the following statement:

Thelma Harper was a woman who always carried the people of Tennessee in her heart. Whether it was valiantly speaking up for the most vulnerable or planning her legendary Easter egg hunts, Thelma's devotion to her community shined bright. I will miss her terribly.

The Senate Democratic Caucus released the following statement on her death:

“As the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate and the longest-serving female senator in Tennessee history, Sen. Harper was a trailblazer who accomplished as much in her decades of public service as any Tennessee legend who came before her. But she never let awards and accolades come before the work of the people. Whether she was fighting landfills for her neighbors, serving a community organization or leading a hearing in the legislature, Thelma Harper was a strong voice for her community, for justice and our most vulnerable children. While this is a sad day for Tennessee, our state is a better place for her legacy of leadership. Thelma Harper loved the Tennessee Senate and the Tennessee Senate loved her right back.”

Davidson County Register of Deeds Karen Johnson released the following statement:

"It is with the deepest sadness that I learned today that icon Senator Thelma Harper has passed away. Women, children, the elderly, the most vulnerable have lost someone who had the courage to stand up for them every chance she got.

We as African American women have lost our beacon. We as elective officials from Metro to the State Capitol have lost our finest example. We as Nashvillians have lost part of the best within us.

My heart goes out and my prayers go up for her daughter Linda, and all of her loved ones."

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, tweeted the following: "Senator Thelma Harper was a trailblazing, strong force for good. She made the State of Tennessee, Nashville and anyone who met her better. She will be sorely missed."

Vivian M. Wilhoite, a property assessor for Metro Nashville, released the following statement:

"Senator Thelma Harper was more than just a senator to me, she was my mentor, my close friend, and Nashville’s Mother in Politics. From the start of my college years at Tennessee State University in 1981 where she and her late husband Mr. Paul Harper impacted on my life in college advocacy to this very day, she was our Rock. She left a legacy of fruitful thoughts of advice like say, 'Go when they don’t expect you to be there,' or 'it’s not always what it seems, dig deeper,' and my Easter Egg Hunt saying, 'Kids are Special too.' My deepest prayers go out to Linda and Bobby, her daughter and son-in-law who were the joy of her life. From the bottom of my heart, Thank you Mother Senator Harper for feeding into me as a leader to help me to feed and help others."

Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover:

"It is with profound sadness that our TSU Family mourns the passing of alumna and former State Senator, the Honorable Thelma Harper. Our condolences to her daughter Linda and the rest of the family. Affectionately known as “The Lady with the hats,” Senator Harper was a fierce advocate for TSU and a committed and true representative for the communities she served. On behalf of the entire TSU Family, we thank you for your service."