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Former state Sen. Thelma Harper – a ‘transformative’ trailblazer – dies at 80

Trailblazing former Tennessee state lawmaker Thelma Harper, who became the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate, died Thursday. She was 80.

The longtime Nashville lawmaker’s daughter, Linda Harper, said in a statement that her mother died “peacefully and unexpectedly” Thursday while holding her hand.

Harper, who became a senator in 1989 and was first elected to her seat in 1991, became the longest-serving female senator in Tennessee before she decided not to seek reelection in 2018.

“We are grateful for her life’s work and I promised her that we will continue the tradition of her beloved ‘Kids Are Special Too’ Annual Easter Egg Hunt,” Linda Harper said. “On behalf of our entire family we are extremely grateful for all your support throughout the years.”

The news of her death drew fond remembrances from both Republicans and Democrats at the Tennessee Capitol.

“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,” the state Senate’s Democratic Caucus said in a statement.

Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called Harper a “transformative public figure,” “a fierce advocate for her constituents and the city of Nashville,” and a role model. In a tribute on Twitter, he also made reference to her fondness for eye-catching hats.

“Today the legendary Thelma Harper traded in her signature hat for a halo,” McNally tweeted.

Harper served as the first chairperson of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators (TBCSL). A key figure in Tennessee Democratic politics, she introduced former Vice President Al Gore, then the presidential nominee, at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.

Before Harper became a senator, The Tennessee State University graduate was a member of Nashville’s Metro Council.

TSU President Dr. Glenda Glover distributed a statement noting Harper’s passing.

“Our condolences to her daughter Linda and the rest of the family,” Glover said.  “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.”

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, who worked with Sen. Harper for years, recalled her as “a titan and a trailblazer for women in politics.”

“Without Thelma Harper, I do not have the opportunity to become the first African-American woman caucus leader in the Tennessee General Assembly,” Camper said.

“She served her community and our state with humor, tenacity and grace. … Thelma Harper woke up every day thinking about how she could improve the lives of the people of her hometown. … She was a colleague, a mentor and a friend. It was an honor to know and work with her and she will be greatly missed.”

Nashville State Rep. Harold Love Jr. served with Sen. Harper, and his father, State Rep. Harold Love Sr., did as well.

“Senator Harper was like my legislative mother and always did her best to make sure I kept my focus,” Rep. Love Jr. said in a released statement.

“Her door was always open and she was a staunch defender of her district … and for the entire state of Tennessee. I will truly miss her wise counsel.”

Recalling interactions and experiences with Sen. Harper through TBCSL, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis said, “Senator Harper taught and I learned lessons of excellence in servant leadership.

“She epitomized Black excellence in leadership; and broke glass ceilings and the rules in service to her people.  Senator Thelma Harper was an extraordinary woman of style and substance whose legacy is Black excellence!”

Memphis’ District 98 state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, current TBCSL chair, said, Sen. Harper was one of the first people he met in Nashville after being elected.

“I had my first Nashville dining experience at Harper’s Restaurant,” Parkinson said in reflection.

“She was always deeply nurturing and encouraging to me as a new legislator. My deepest condolences go out to the Harper family.”

(This story includes a report from The Associated Press.)

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