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.   

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