Tennesseans said goodbye for a final time to the late Sen. Thelma Harper as she was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery Thursday, May 6
following a Celebration of Life service at her alma mater, Tennessee State University.
An estimated 400 people attended the service, said TSU public information officer Emmanuel Freeman.
The service, followed by a Legacy Motorcade Route and her internment, capped off a week of events in memory of the transformative legislator who broke racial and gender barriers and was known not just for her love of big hats but also the underserved communities she worked hard to protect.
“Thank God for Thelma Harper,” said TSU President Dr. Glenda Glover.
“God bless the memory of Thelma Harper and God bless those who love her,” former Vice President Al Gore remarked. Recalling her activism in the community’s fight against the Bordeaux Landfill, Harper was “for environmental justice before people knew that was a thing,” he continued.
Then-councilwoman Harper was on the front lines of that fight and was arrested for protesting and
blockading the dump trucks from entering the facility alongside other community activists.
Their efforts resulted in the landfill’s closure. The community had won.
Friends and Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters of Harper donning their hats assembled to celebrate her memory by dancing to James Brown’s “I Feel Good” performed by the Jazzy Aristocat Ensemble, working their way around the audience in procession to the front of the stage.
A soulful performance by fellow HBCU Fisk University’s legendary Jubilee Singers preceded a host of speakers who recounted their memories of Sen. Harper. There was no shortage of tears or laughs as stories were shared from the podium.
Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally took to the podium to lament her passing. “Senator Harper, I want to also tip my hat to you for a life well-lived and a job well done,” he remarked.
Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite recalled Harper’s mentorship and described her impact as “electrifying.”
Danielle Knight, Sen. Harper’s former and last intern, rounded out the comments of fellow tribute speakers Rep. Harold Love, Rep. Jim Cooper, Councilwoman Sharon Hurt and State Senators Jeff Yarbro and Raumesh Akbari.
Former Nashville mayor Karl Dean took to the podium and recalled that Harper was one of two legislators to support same-sex marriage decades before it entered the mainstream discussion and became law in 2015.
“Our community is better off because of who she was and what she did,” Dean said.
Three local students– Kennedy Armstrong, Head Middle Magnet School; Nyla Joi Spencer, Nashville School of the Arts High School; and Bethel Derege, Luther King Jr. High School– recited poems they’d written in her honor.
Sen. Harper’s great-niece, Kayla Boles, delivered a powerfully emotional dance performance which left attendees in a sort of suspended animation to the music of “Glory/Stranger,” a collaborative track between Nashville artist Shannon Sanders and the Jubilee Singers featuring Derek Minor.
The Legacy Motorcade that succeeded the service took participants on a driving tour of Harper’s economic legacy in Nashville, passing sites that have become local staples and major tourist attractions. Beginning at TSU the route included Jefferson Street, the former location of Harper’s Restaurant (now Kingdom Cafe) that she operated with her husband Paul, then proceeded to pass Meharry Medical College, Fisk University, the Nashville Sounds stadium, the Tennessee Titans stadium, Music City Center and the National Museum of African American Music.
Harper was the first Black woman elected to the State Senate as well as the first to preside over the Senate body and is the longest-serving State Senator in Tennessee history. Known for her tireless advocation of her constituents, Harper was particularly engaged in crafting legislation to help the community’s women, elderly and children.
Sen. Harper passed away peacefully Thursday, April 22 at the age of 80 and is the first Black woman to lie in state at the Tennessee State Capitol.
This article was edited to correct the Celebration of Life service date from April 6 to May 6.