Longtime Public Servant Thelma Harper Dies at 80

Senator Thelma Harper

Nashville, TN (TN Tribune)–Thelma Harper, who represented the Tennessee Senate’s 19th District for three decades, has died. She was 80 years old.

The longtime Democrat and North Nashvillian was the longest-serving woman in Tennessee State Senate history. Known for her eye-catching wide-brimmed hats and no-nonsense rhetoric, Harper previously served two terms as a Metro councilmember in Nashville’s District 2.

Mayor Cooper remembered “the woman with the big hats and the giant heart” as a leader of dignity and love and “a legendary Nashvillian.”

“Laura and I join all the Tennesseans who miss and honor her,” Cooper said. “We send our warmest condolences to her family and friends.”

He reminisced on the historic length of her tenure, her love for Tennessee State University (her alma mater), and her famous, citywide Easter Egg hunts.

“Whether she was fighting landfills for her neighbors, serving a community organization or leading a hearing in the legislature, Thelma Harper was a strong voice for her community, for justice and our most vulnerable children,” the Senate Democratic Caucus said in a statement. “While this is a sad day for Tennessee, our state is a better place for her legacy of leadership. Thelma Harper loved the Tennessee Senate and the Tennessee Senate loved her right back.”

Caucus chair Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) added that Harper was “a trailblazing, ceiling-shattering LEGEND.”

During her time in the state Senate, Harper served on numerous committees, including the Local Government Committee, the Corrections Oversight Committee and the Veterans Affairs Oversight Committee. She was president of the Women’s Suffrage Commission and vice chair of the Tennessee Black Healthcare Commission. She also owned the Jefferson Street diner Harper’s Restaurant with her husband, businessman Paul Harper, who died in 2018. Harper’s annual Easter egg hunt was started in 1983 as a resource for community children but also became a must-stop for aspiring politicians.

Harper decided not to run for re-election in 2018, and then-Rep. Brenda Gilmore was elected to represent her Nashville district.

The Senate Democratic Caucus issued a joint statement marking the death of state Senator Thelma Harper who served the 19th District in the Tennessee Senate from 1989 to 2016.

“As the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate and the longest-serving female senator in Tennessee history, Sen. Harper was a trailblazer who accomplished as much in her decades of public service as any Tennessee legend who came before her. But she never let awards and accolades come before the work of the people. Whether she was fighting landfills for her neighbors, serving a community organization or leading a hearing in the legislature, Thelma Harper was a strong voice for her community, for justice and our most vulnerable children. While this is a sad day for Tennessee, our state is a better place for her legacy of leadership. Thelma Harper loved the Tennessee Senate and the Tennessee Senate loved her right back.”