Former state Sen. Thelma Harper passed away at the age of 80 on Thursday, April 22.
Harper’s daughter, Linda Harper, tweeted the following statement: “It is with an unimaginable sorrow and heartbreak that we announce the passing of my mother former state Sen. Thelma Harper. She passed peacefully and unexpectedly this morning holding my hand. She dedicated her life to her family and serving the people of Tennessee and the 19th District in the Senate and the 2nd District in the Metro Council. 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. On behalf of our entire family, we are extremely grateful for all your support throughout the years.”
Harper was the first African American woman to serve in the Tennessee state Senate. She served from 1989 to 2016. Harper was also the first woman to preside over the Senate, the first African American woman to serve as chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, and the first senator to serve as chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus.
Harper, known for her fantastic hats, began her public service in 1980 when she was elected as a Metro Nashville councilwoman for the 2nd District, serving for eight years. In 1983, she became executive committee woman for the 2nd district. She simultaneously served as the 2nd District’s councilwoman and as a state senator for the 19th District to complete her term in the city council.
She had a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration/accounting from Tennessee State University.
“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. She was affectionately known as the ‘Lady with the Hats.’ Sen. 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,” said Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover.
The Senate Democratic Caucus released the following statement on the passing of Sen. Harper:
“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.”
“Thelma Harper was the woman with the big hats and the giant heart. She walked in dignity and led with love,” said Nashville Mayor John Cooper.
“She forged paths in government and business for generations who come after her. As one of Tennessee’s longest-serving legislators, she fought for children, women, and the elderly. Where we see the progress that has made our community more just, we see Thelma. And Thelma was a legendary Nashvillian. She represented District 2 for two terms on the Metro Council. Her presence was so iconic, she was selected to co-chair Metro’s 50th birthday celebration.
“She was famous for her love of Tennessee State University, her alma mater, and for her joyful citywide Easter Egg hunts. Laura and I join all the Tennesseans who miss and honor her. We send our warmest condolences to her family and friends.”
A series of community events will be held May 3 through May 6 in honor of the late senator. A listing follows:
Monday, May 3
Community Farewell Viewing: Schrader Lane Church of Christ, 1234 Schrader Ln., Nashville, Tenn. 37208. from 11 am– 6 pm. ‘The People’s Advocate in the Metro Council’ event is open to the public; mask required.
Tuesday, May 4
Receiving Ceremony: 9 am
Receivers include: Mayor John Cooper; Vice Mayor Jim Shulman; Deputy Mayor Brenda Haywood’ At-Large-Council members Sharon Hurt and Burkley Allen; Councilman Jonathan Hall; and members of the Metro Council of Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.
Sen. Thelma Harper Lies in State
Metropolitan Courthouse & City Hall, 10 am–2 pm. The event is open to the public; mask required.
Wednesday, May 5
Receiving Ceremony: 9 am
Receivers include: Senate: Lt. Gov. Randy McNally; Minority Leader Sen. Jeff Yarbro; and Democratic Caucus Chairman Sen. Raumesh Akbari
House: Speaker of the House Rep. Cameron Sexton; Minority Leader Rep. Karen Camper; Assistant Leader Rep. Harold Love; Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Vincent Dixie; Floor Leader Rep. Bill Beck; and Caucus Vice Chairman Rep. Bob Freeman
Sen. Harper Lies in State
Tennessee State Capitol, 10 am–2 pm. The event is open to the public; mask required.
Thursday, May 6
Final Visitation: 10 am–11 am
Celebration Of Life: 11 am–1 pm, Tennessee State University, Kean Hall, 3500 John A. Merritt Blvd., Nashville, Tenn. The event is open to the public; mask required and capacity limitations protocol. Attendance will not be permitted once capacity is maxed. Celebration will be streamed live and available virtually.
Legacy Journey/Landmark Ride Sen. Harper: Tennessee State University, Jefferson Street, Meharry Medical College, Fisk University, Nashville Sounds, Tennessee Titans Stadium, Music City Convention Center, National Museum of African American Music
Greenwood Cemetery West
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Nashville
Omega Omega Service (virtual): future date to be announced
Farewell Rally & Backyard BBQ
Kingdom Cafe (formerly Harper’s Restaurant), 2610 Jefferson Street, immediately following Celebration of Life & Motorcade Watch. The event is open to the public; mask required.