NOTE: Due to the passing of Senator Thelma Harper’s husband, the reception that was planned honoring her on Thursday morning (3/29) at the Senate will be rescheduled for another time. The Senator’s annual Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday will continue in his honor.
By Reginald Stuart
NASHVILLE, TN — Growing up in rural Hartsville, Tennessee, Paul Wilson Harper never knew he would make the nation’s history books. He did in a big way, despite keeping his cool, low profile and demeanor for decades on the busy business streets of North Nashville.
From his early adult years as a service attendant at I.T. Creswell’s on Jefferson Street at 14th Avenue North, to business training at Exxon Corporation to manager of Exxon and Gulf oil stations to an award winning franchise owner for Phillips 66 for more than a decade, Harper was on a roll not just at the gas pump.
As his career progressed, he became active in efforts to promote Black business in Nashville and could always be counted on to help those in need along the way.
“I knew him as a work alcoholic,” said veteran Nashville barber Vernon Winfrey, echoing many others asked to describe Paul Harper. “He was an upright outstanding man,” said Winfrey. “He was a man among men.”
The accolades voiced this week by Winfrey and others came as Harper’s family and friends were preparing to bid him a formal farewell. After a year of slowly declining health, Harper, known for his gasoline stations to convenience store to restaurant on Jefferson Street, passed March 24, 2018 at age 79.
A celebration of life” memorial for Harper was set for Thursday of this week at Schrader Lane Church of Christ on Schrader Lane, the church of which he and his long time spouse, Senator Thelma Harper, were active members. Lewis and Wright Funeral Home was making the arrangements.
Harper was the last surviving child to the seven children of the late Willie Van and Nelllie Lou Harper of Hartsville.
Harper was recognized by most customers for his friendly face and smile of confidence. From his gas stations to his restaurant, he was known for his open arms to help others, people who knew him said. Being an active part of the community at any cost seemed as important to him, as accumulating a fortune, they noted.
“Mr. Harper was a true champion for minority business in Nashville,” said William Collier Jr., veteran retired businessman and banker. Harper had “an undeniable thirst for minority business ownership,” said Collier, as he listed several examples of Harper’s initiative in making sure the system was working for all.
Indeed, Harper’s determination to challenge those who would deny minorities a fair chance in the business world put his mettle to the test with a result eventually benefitting him and all minorities.
Beginning in 1989, BP Oil, with which he had developed a long relationship, decided to close his gasoline franchise near 28th Avenue North and John Merritt Boulevard, near the campus of Tennessee State University (TSU). Not only would the franchise be closed, Harper would not be offered another BP outlet.
When more than a year of letter writing and cordial business like exchanges failed to even get a dialogue with the BP decision makers, Harper decided to sue over BP’s decision to drop him. In a federal lawsuit, he asserted it was because of his race.
With the legal assistance of Phillip Lester North of the law firm North, Pursell & Ramos, Harper won his argument in the federal district court in Nashville in August, 1995. In his ruling, Judge John T. Nixon declared BP “engaged in purposeful racial discrimination” against Harper and allowed his lawsuit seeking $60 million to be heard.
BP appealed Judge Nixon’s ruling to the United States Court for the Sixth Circuit. It lost the appeal. The final amount awarded Harper is not known. What is clear today, is companies that have vendors need to respond to them where there is a disagreement and cannot resort to vaguely worded explanations for ending a relationship. Through the trail of Harper’s, it also became evident BP had chosen a white person with no service station experience to get a new franchise during the same time it was giving Harper the cold shoulder, despite his more than 20 years of award winning experience.
“He was a gentleman, never a rival. Never a competitor,” said David Swett, owner of Swett’s Restaurant, the oldest of the collection of Black-owned dining restaurants in Nashville. Swett remembers welcoming Harper to North Nashville restaurant world, attending the grand opening of Harper’s Restaurant and celebrating its opening. “Paul did a great job,” Swett said, despite the demise of the restaurant in its final years. “He was a good man all the way to the bone.”
Visitation with family and friends will be held at Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors from 4-6 pm on Wednesday, March 27, 2018. Funeral will be held at Schrader Lane Church of Christ, 1234 Schrader Lane, Nashville TN on Thursday, March 29, 2018. Visitation from 10:00 am – 12:00 pm followed by funeral at 12:00 noon. Interment to follow at Greenwood Cemetery. Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors 615-255-2371