TSU remembers trailblazing alumna Thelma Harper as a strong, ‘unwavering’ advocate and supporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Those who remember the late former state Sen. Thelma Harper know she’d be smiling from ear to ear right now just hearing about Tennessee State University. Her love for her alma mater was unwavering. Whether in the Senate where she fought fiercely for equitable funding for TSU, or in the community where she was a powerful voice, or at events on campus, Harper was an advocate like no other.  

TSU President Glenda Glover shares an interesting moment she had with Sen. Thelma Harper, as she pays tribute to the late former lawmaker during the Celebration of Life service at TSU. (Photo by Ashley Benkarski)

 “Senator Thelma Harper was a fierce advocate for Tennessee State University, and a true friend. She never forgot her roots and remained committed to the values instilled in her by her parents as a public servant,” said TSU President Glenda Glover.

“At TSU, we celebrate her life and will be forever thankful for all she did for her alma mater. If there is one individual that truly embodied the university‘s motto of think, work, serve, it was Senator Harper. On behalf of the entire TSU Family, we thank you for your service.” 

In 2018, weeks before her retirement from the state Senate, alumna Thelma Harper, third from right, participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for two new residence halls on the main TSU campus. (Photo by TSU Media Relations)

Harper, a Democrat and the first black woman elected to the state Senate in 1989, died April 22. She was 80. A native of Brentwood, Tennessee, Harper graduated from TSU in 1978, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting. She went on to break many glass ceilings and earned many “firsts” in history as a politician and a national figure. In all, she never forgot her TSU.

“Her commitment to Tennessee State University is measured by what we see on the campus,” said fellow TSU alum and state Rep. Dr. Harold Love, Jr. “Fighting for students to have access to great academic programs, promoting TSU equal funding – for me, that was one of the joys when I first got elected to be able to work alongside her to have TSU not forgotten about in the state budget.” 

Danielle Knight, TSU graduate and Sen. Harper’s last intern up to her retirement in 2018, says the late lawmaker inspired her so much that she has set her sight on becoming an elected official. (Photo by Ashley Benkarski)

In one final visit to her alma mater, and in appreciation of the late state senator’s lifelong commitment to TSU, the University served as the backdrop for Harper’s “Celebration of Life” service in the Gentry Complex Center on May 6. President Glover, along with administrators, staff, students, faculty, alumni and the community filed by to pay their final respect. 

Barbara Murrell, a TSU alumna and former administrator, remembers Harper as a TSU student and her rise as a state and national figure. 

“Senator Harper was a servant leader who was always available to focus on the needs of her alma mater, Tennessee State University and the community she served,” said Murrell, retired TSU vice president for student affairs. “She was respected, admired and appreciated by all who observed her willingness to accept the motto of her alma mater, think, work, serve and make it her own.”  

Sen. Harper, in one of her signature stylish hats, along with other lawmakers, joins TSU President Glover, administrators, staff and students during TSU Day at Capitol in 2018. (Photo by TSU Media Relations)

Danielle Knight and Marissa Faith King were Harper’s mentees when they interned at the Capitol as TSU students. They recalled the late lawmaker’s personal involvement in their development.  

“Sen. Harper helped me a lot as an intern working with her in the General Assembly,” said Knight, a 2018 TSU graduate in political science, who was Harper’s last intern up to the senator’s retirement the same year. “As a student, she impacted my life and inspired me so much working with her that I decided to become a legislator, to help people in my community as she always did.” Currently a lobbyist aid with the state and a financial services representative with a credit union, Knight’s career goal is to become an elected official.  

For King, who interned with two other lawmakers but interacted with Harper and her staff on many bills, she said the late senator taught her to be firm in a world dominated by men and competing political interests.

“She taught us as black female interns it is okay to stand your ground,” said King, a 2017 criminal justice graduate and an executive legislative assistant in the state House of Representatives. “She told me, ‘It is always necessary to have a seat at the table and make sure you’re being heard and being respected.’”  

Harper was always a major presence at the annual TSU Day at the Capitol, when a wave of TSU blue – students, administrators, faculty, staff – converged on the Capitol with displays of academic offerings and cutting-edge research. She made sure to personally invite her fellow lawmakers to see the “pride of her alma mater.”  

Frank Stevenson, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said Harper’s “consistent voice for opportunities for TSU was unmatched in the state Legislature.”  

“She never missed being a part of the Homecoming events, including being at the parade every year,” Stevenson said. “She never missed celebrating our graduation services. She was just amazing to this university and our campus community.”  

Additionally, while Harper was fighting for TSU in the Tennessee General Assembly, she was also hands-on at the university, mentoring students, especially young women about their personal choices and career goals. She served on the advisory board of the Women’s Center from the inception of the center in 2007 until her passing. She was among the first recipients of the Women of Merit and Legend Award given by the center each year to upstanding women in the community. At the 2018 WOLM awards ceremony, President Glover presented Harper with a special award for her “trailblazing years as a public servant.”  

“She was very helpful and diligent in supporting women’s and student scholarship,” said center director Seanne Wilson. “She was one of the first to provide seed money and scholarship dollars to start the center. She mentored some of the young ladies on professional development, and really just gave them access to her.”  

Harper was buried Thursday at Greenwood Cemetery following the service at TSU. 

Department of Media Relations

Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209
615.963.5331

About Tennessee State University

Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a  premier, historically black university and land-grant institution offering 39 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs, and eight doctoral degrees.  TSU is a comprehensive research intensive institution with a R-2 Carnegie designation, and has a graduate school on its downtown Avon Williams Campus, along with the Otis Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville, Tennessee.  With a commitment to excellence, Tennessee State University provides students  with a quality education in a nurturing and innovative environment that prepares them as alumni to be global leaders in every facet of society. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.

lawmakers remember former state sen. Thelma Harper as a transformative legislator who ‘smashed glass ceilings’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Lawmakers and scholars say former State Sen. Thelma Harper, the first black woman to serve in the Tennessee Senate, was a trailblazer for women in politics who “smashed glass ceilings.”

Harper died April 22 at age 80. There was a week-long series of visitations and services to honor her life that included Harper lying in state at Nashville’s Metro Courthouse and the Tennessee State Capitol.

In one final visit to her alma mater, and in appreciation of the late state senator’s lifelong commitment to Tennessee State University, the university served as the backdrop for Harper’s “Celebration of Life” service in the Gentry Complex Center on May 6. President Glenda Glover, along with administrators, staff, students, faculty, alumni and the community, filed by to pay their final respect. 

“We honor the life, the legacy, the memory of one of the greatest women this nation has ever known, Sen. Thelma Harper,” Dr. Glover said at the service.

Before the event, President Glover called Harper a “fierce advocate for Tennessee State University, and a true friend. She never forgot her roots and remained committed to the values instilled in her by her parents as a public servant,” said Glover. 

Sen. Harper and TSU President Glenda Glover

“At TSU, we celebrate her life and will be forever thankful for all she did for her alma mater. If there is one individual that truly embodied the university’s motto of think, work, serve, it was Senator Harper. On behalf of the entire TSU Family, we thank you for your service.” 

A native of Brentwood, Tennessee, Harper graduated from TSU in 1978, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting. She later went into public service and spent eight years on the Metropolitan City Council. During that time, she led a fight to close the Bordeaux Landfill. The numerous protests and blockades of dump trucks led to her arrest along with her fellow community activists. This activism yielded closure of the dump and proposed legislation that enacted fair and equitable standards of landfill locations.  

In 1990, Harper, whose lively personality often matched her colorful and stylish hats, was elected to the state Senate. She simultaneously served as the 2nd District councilwoman and as state senator of the 19th District to complete her term in the city council. Harper retired from the Senate in 2018 after serving nearly 30 years, the longest serving female state senator in Tennessee history.

During her Senate tenure, Harper was an unwavering voice for women, children and the elderly, passing numerous bills to support their issues. She was also able to foster economic development within her district through the passage of amendments to state budgets that benefitted the citizens and local colleges within her district.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who served in the Senate with Harper throughout her time in office, called her a “transformative public figure.”

“She was a fierce advocate for her constituents and the city of Nashville,” said McNally, who was on the opposite side of the political aisle as Harper, a Democrat. “She was a role model for many and greatly respected by all who served with her. She will be missed.”

Sen. Harper and Al Gore

In a video message at Thursday’s Celebration service, former Vice President Al Gore also called Harper transformative, stating she transformed “things for the better.”

“Thelma worked tirelessly to uplift the people of our beloved state,” said Gore. “The best thing that we can do to honor her is to continue her work.”  

State Rep. Harold Love Jr. said Harper’s fearlessness in speaking up for her constituents is indeed part of her legacy, but he believes she will also be remembered for being a “trailblazer for women in politics.”

“Keep in mind that when Sen. Harper became the first black female senator, that in itself challenged the status quo in the state Senate,” said Love, who is a TSU alum. “So, when young women saw her, they saw the embodiment of what can be. You don’t have to limit yourself because of your gender or your race. You can indeed be whatever God put inside of you, whatever your heart’s desire is. You can get it.”

Harper, the activist.

Dr. Samantha Morgan-Curtis is a Women’s Studies faculty member and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at TSU.  She noted how the nation recently watched in amazement as both seats behind President Joe Biden were occupied by women – Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – during a speech to the joint Congress.

“We felt that historic moment in 2021,” said Morgan-Curtis. “Now, imagine that those firsts as a woman and an African American are happening in 1989 (first African-American woman elected to the Tennessee State Senate) and 1983 (Harper was only the second woman of color to serve on the Metro Council). Senator Harper smashed glass ceilings with one hand while reaching back to help other women climb and earn leadership positions. In 2021, we are still seeing historic firsts, and those moments are only occurring because of iconic trailblazers such as Senator Harper.”

One woman in particular that Harper influenced was Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Raumesh Akbari, a former state representative.

“Senator Thelma Harper was a trailblazing, ceiling shattering, legend,” said Akbari. “She always supported me and had a kind, encouraging or funny word. I remember when she came to my first fundraiser in Nashville. And when I was elected to the Senate, Sen. Harper called and gave me such good advice. She was a gladiator for her community, a legislative lioness that never gave up or in.”

Sen. Harper inspiring a future generation.

At-large Metro Council member and TSU alumna Sharon Hurt said Harper also left a lasting impression on her.

“Senator Thelma Harper inspired me to be my authentic self and stay grounded,” said Hurt. “Regardless of being in the male-dominated world of politics, it didn’t mean you could not look like a lady, care like a lady, and love like a lady. She always showed people they mattered, taking care of their business, but never ever failing to take care of God’s business, and her own.”

According to research conducted by the state’s legislative librarian, Harper is the first woman and first African American person to lie in state in the Capitol.

She was buried Thursday at Greenwood Cemetery following the service at TSU.   

Department of Media Relations

Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209
615.963.5331

About Tennessee State University

Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a  premier, historically black university and land-grant institution offering 39 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs, and eight doctoral degrees.  TSU is a comprehensive research intensive institution with a R-2 Carnegie designation, and has a graduate school on its downtown Avon Williams Campus, along with the Otis Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville, Tennessee.  With a commitment to excellence, Tennessee State University provides students  with a quality education in a nurturing and innovative environment that prepares them as alumni to be global leaders in every facet of society. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.

Former TSU football player christion abercrombie who suffered severe brain injury walks across stage to receive degree at commencement ceremony

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Christion Abercrombie has not ceased to amaze. It was considered a miracle when the former Tennessee State University linebacker rapidly recovered from a severe brain injury and began taking online courses to complete his degree. On Saturday, Abercrombie inspired once again, as he walked across the stage to receive his diploma.

TSU President Glenda Glover. (Photo by Michael Bennett)

“I feel very happy and blessed to be graduating with my undergraduate degree from TSU,” said Abercrombie. “I thank my parents, and everybody for their prayers and support.”

He was among more than 900 graduates and undergraduates who received degrees in various disciplines during Tennessee State University’s Spring Commencement ceremonies. Earlier this month, TSU officially announced the 2021 graduation exercises would return to campus and be held in Hale Stadium following a year of virtual ceremonies because of the pandemic. The graduate ceremony was held in the stadium on Friday.

This year’s ceremonies were special because of in-person participation since the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Abercrombie and his family, there was added emotion because of all they endured before the pandemic. They received special recognition during the ceremony.

“Christion was … not expected to live,” said Frank Stevenson, associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students. “Today, he is graduating, and God is good. We celebrate his life.”

On Sept. 29, 2018, Abercrombie suffered his brain injury in a game against Vanderbilt. His recovery was questionable. But gradually, he began to make progress. And eventually, he was getting around like normal. He then sought to complete what he started by taking online courses. When Abercrombie got his degree on Saturday, his mother reiterated what she’s said all along, that her son is a miracle.

Christion Abercrombie with (l to r) his mother, Staci, Michelle Miller, Marc Morial, President Glover, and his father, Derrick. (Photo by Michael Bennett)

“I knew that I would see this day,” said Staci Abercrombie. “However, I didn’t think it would come as soon as it did. So, I know that It’s all because of God.”

Staci Abercrombie said she’s grateful to TSU’s faculty and staff for accommodating her son while he finished his coursework.

“Our family feels the favor of God, to be witnessing such a blessing. Each day is a gift and we give God all the praise,” she said.  

Christion’s father, Derrick, shared his wife’s sentiment about seeing their son receive his bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies.

“It’s a great accomplishment, for anybody really, but especially for him going through what he went through,” he said. “We feel really proud.”

As she did in the graduate ceremony the day before, TSU President Glenda Glover congratulated the undergraduates on their accomplishments.

Marc Morial addresses graduates. (Photo by Michael Bennett)

“I applaud you for reaching this extraordinary milestone,” said Glover. “We salute you. We honor you.”

The keynote speaker for the ceremony was former New Orleans mayor and National Urban League President Marc Morial. His wife, CBS national correspondent Michelle Miller, spoke at the graduate commencement. Both were honored with plaques from President Glover.

Throughout his speech Morial referenced “9 minutes and 29 seconds.” During the recent trial of the police officer charged with killing George Floyd, prosecutors said he knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, correcting the 8:46 timing that had become a symbol of police brutality.

Morial asked the graduates to commit at least 9 minutes and 29 seconds each day to “make a difference.”

“We all stand on the shoulders of others,” he said. “As you leave Tennessee State University, your shoulders are strong. Your brain is trained, let your heart be tuned, to make a difference in your life and the lives of others.”

Marc Morial honored with plaque from President Glover. His wife, Michelle Miller, was also honored. (Photo by Michael Bennett)

Graduates said they enjoyed the speaker and were inspired by his message. But what they all seemed most excited about was being able to gather in person for the ceremony. 

“This specific in-person commencement symbolizes all our graduating seniors who have worked relentlessly to stick to the course this past year in every aspect,” said Dominique Davis of Danville, Illinois. The former Student Government Association president received her degree in business administration. “This moment should be celebrated, and I am most grateful administrators have remained open-minded in the entirety of graduation planning,” she said.   

Folusho E. Micah, who received his bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in cellular and molecular biology, said he feels blessed to be among those participating in an in-person graduation.  

“To have spent the past four years working so hard toward this moment and it be virtual would have been a huge let down,” said Micah, of Nashville. “Being able to walk across the stage in my cap and gown makes all those sleepless nights feel worth it.” 

Jamontrae Christmon of Franklin, Tennessee, said he got little sleep leading up to graduation day.

2021 TSU graduates. (Photo by Michael Bennett)

“I was so happy to be able to graduate in person,” said Christmon, who received a degree in criminal justice. “I was like a kid on Christmas Eve, just wondering what I’m going to get, what the next day will be like.”

Those attending the ceremonies were required to wear masks and practice social distancing. Adults were strongly encouraged to have been vaccinated.

Graduate Jayla Barnes of Franklin said she felt safe during the ceremony and commended TSU for its detailed attention to safety on the campus in general. 

“I noticed all the COVID-19 checkpoints, and every building you enter you have to have your temperature taken, just to name a few things,” said Barnes, a communications major. “I think they’ve done a fantastic job of keeping people safe.”

The graduates said they’re pleased at the high number of freshmen that are coming behind them in the fall, and they encourage all students currently enrolled to return to TSU.

Christian Bond of Nashville has this advice for them all.

“Don’t let anyone or anything get in the way of your dreams, because with God, family, and love, nothing can stop you,” said Bond, a single mother who received a degree in biology and plans to become a doctor. “Take advantage of all the opportunities you are presented and make lifelong connections. You won’t regret it.” 

To view the 2021 Spring Commencement Program booklet, visit https://bit.ly/3udosRq.

Note: Featured photo by Michael Bennett

Department of Media Relations

Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209
615.963.5331

About Tennessee State University

Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a  premier, historically black university and land-grant institution offering 39 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs, and eight doctoral degrees.  TSU is a comprehensive research intensive institution with a R-2 Carnegie designation, and has a graduate school on its downtown Avon Williams Campus, along with the Otis Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville, Tennessee.  With a commitment to excellence, Tennessee State University provides students  with a quality education in a nurturing and innovative environment that prepares them as alumni to be global leaders in every facet of society. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.