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Remembering and Honoring Sen. Thelma Harper

April 23, 2021

With heavy hearts we heard the announcement that former Sen. Harper passed away at the age of 80 on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Though the circumstances of her death are unknown, it was reported by her daughter, Linda, that "she passed peacefully and unexpectedly...holding my hand." 

In honor of her extraordinary life and impactful work for the government and community, I've updated the blog post I wrote in 2017. 

Remembering Sen. Harper

Nashville is a city rich with history. And it's also a city rich with several known and unknown stories about heroes and heroines standing up to inequality and injustice, since its 18th-century birth. Or—in the case of Sen. Thelma Harper—someone who wasn't afraid to shatter a well-intact ceiling.

 

Well-known for being a fighter in all her work and a wearer of hats, Sen. Harper was previously a Metro Council member and delegate to the Democratic National Convention before becoming the first African American female elected to the Tennessee State Senate in 1989.

Senator Harper was also one of 21 Civil Rights figures honored at the Vanderbilt-South Carolina men's basketball game the weekend of Feb. 18th, 2017. Following an opening ceremony where the honorees were recognized, the players continued the tribute by wearing special edition uniforms dawning the names of each Civil Rights' figure.

This tribute was a part of Vandy's Equality Weekend, also coinciding with the 50th anniversary of former Vandy players Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard breaking the SEC basketball color barrier, in the 1966-67 season. The tribute by the school showed a considerable stride in bringing more diversity to the campus, especially considering the school's history has not always reflected cooperation with Civil Right's efforts. For example, when Rev. James Lawson was a student in the Divinity School at the university, he was expelled in 1960 over his leadership in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. 

Early Political Career

Though Harper broke through the Senate ceiling for African American women with her 1989 election, Sen. Harper's political career began years before when she served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention (1980, '84, '88, '92, 2000, '04, '08, and '12), and served 8 years on Metro Council. Harper was the second female minority to serve on Metro Council, after Lois Jordan who was on the Council from 1971-75. 

 

 

According to a 1983 Standing Committees' directory, Harper was on the following standing committees while on Metro Council:

  • Planning, Zoning, Historical and Port Authority
  • Codes, Fair and Farmers Market
  • Schools

After scanning through several of Metro Council's Agendas and Minutes' pages to see what sort of work she was involved in, I found that she was a leader in the fight over the Bordeaux Landfill, with several protests and blockades  to which she was arrested for, along with several other community activists. It was a successful fight though, and the facility was closed, and she then sponsored legislation to create equitable standards for landfill locations.

Bring on the State Senate

Senator Thelma Harper shaking hands with another politician
From the Marilyn Swing Photograph Collection, a photo of Senator Thelma Harper at David Scobey's final council meeting, circa 1995.

After her historic election in 1989, she served the 19th District, which includes a large portion of Davidson County (including downtown). 

She continued to make history by becoming the first African American woman to preside over the Senate body. She was then appointed by Lt. Gov. John Wilder to chair the Senate government operations committee. 

In 2011, she became the first senator to lead the legislature's Black Caucus.

Re-elected in 2014, she continued with her Council initiative by predominantly sponsoring bills to improve education. Here are some of the other bills she helped sponsor over the years (or co-sponsor):

  • The renaming of U.S. Highway 41 to Rosa Parks Boulevard. 
  • Played a strong role in the economic growth of the 19th Senate District. 
  • She was instrumental in the development of several major downtown initiatives or projects, such as the Music City Center, the Downtown Library, and bringing the Titans (née Oilers) to Nashville.

From the TN General Assembly website, here's more of her work:

  • As introduced, required the department to notify the general assembly within 60 days of any consolidation of two or more school districts.
  • As introduced, required the division of parks and recreation to designate one weekend per year, instead of one day per year, during which access to and use of all state parks is free of charge for veterans .
  • Statement of Intent or Position on urging a solution of societal problems stemming from fatherless homes and divorce.
  • Statement of Intent or Position on urging law enforcement, school officials, the judiciary, community leaders, and the business community to work together to address truancy.        

In 2018, she did not seek re-election and retired from government service after 30 years of dedication. The 19th District seat was succeeded by Sen. Brenda Gilmore.            

Community Work         

Outside her work in public office, her community involvement included (to name a few):

  • Serving on the board for the Nashville Symphony
  • Member of "Women in Government" - a national, non-profit, non-partisan, organization of women legislators.
  • Member of the YWCA Advisory Committee
  • Member of The National HOOK-UP of Black Women, Inc.
  • She hosted an Easter egg hunt for children in the community every year; something her daughter says she will continue. 

Senator Harper was also a graduate of Tennessee State University, with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Accounting. Along with supporting several other schools in the mid-state, she remained a lifelong supporter to her alma mater as well. 

Rest in peace, Senator Harper. There are still several more glass ceilings to be shattered, but thanks for the wonderful head-start!  

lucille ball

Sarah

Sarah is an Archives Assistant with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.