Senator Thelma Harper

By Ashley Benkarski

“If you know something is wrong, change it.”  — Sen. Thelma Harper

NASHVILLE, TN — Tennessee lost one of its best April 22 when longtime State Senator Thelma Harper passed away at the age of 80.

Harper was one of eleven children born to sharecropper Reverend William Claybrooks, Sr. and Clora Thomas Claybrooks in the Pultight area of

Williamson County on Dec. 2, 1940, her obituary states.

A member of Schrader Lane Church of Christ, she is survived by daughter Linda and son-in-law Bobby, “to whom she was an extremely proud and devoted mother;” brother Dennis Claybrooks, Godsister Charlene Stuart and devoted nieces, nephews, Godchildren, friends and colleagues.

Linda said her mother died “peacefully and unexpectedly” while holding her hand, the Associated Press reported.

“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,” said the state Senate Democratic Caucus.

She attended Haynes High School and married Paul Harper with her parents’ blessing at sixteen, according to her obituary. The couple were married until Paul’s passing in 2018.

She was forced to delay her education for years due to the prohibition of married students attending high school but didn’t give up, eventually graduating from Cameron High School. The Harpers operated their namesake restaurant and several other businesses on historic Jefferson Street. 

When her children grew older, she attended Tennessee State University and received her B.S. in Business Administration and Accounting in 1978. She belonged to the Nashville Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Sen. Harper left a profound impact on the community she served and made history over and again, including the honor of being the longest-serving woman State Senator in Tennessee history.

She was dedicated to civic duty, serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for over three decades (1980, ‘84, ‘88, ‘92, 2000, ‘04, ‘08, and ‘12). Elected in 1980 to serve as the Second District’s executive committeewoman, she was next elected to city council in 1983. She simultaneously served as the 2nd District councilwoman and as State Senator of the 19th District to complete her city council term, her obituary detailed.

In 1989 she became the first Black woman to serve as State Senator and became the first woman and first Black woman to preside over the Senate body. She’s now the first to rest at the State Capitol.

A Metro Councilmember for eight years, Harper was the second female minority to serve after Lois Jordan, who was Councilwoman from 1971-75, according to archives cited on the Nashville Public Library website. 

She served on the Planning, Zoning, Historical and Port Authority; Codes, Fair and Farmers Market; and Schools committees.

As councilwoman she helped lead the community in their fight against the Bordeaux Landfill and was arrested with others during the protests and blockades of dump trucks, resulting in the closing of the landfill. Harper also sponsored legislation to create equitable standards for landfill locations. 

In 2011 she became the first senator to lead the legislature’s Black Caucus and was appointed to chair the Senate Government Operations Committee and Vice Chair of the State and Local Government Committee.

Re-elected in 2014, she sponsored bills to improve education and the lives of students, establishing a fee waiver to provide students from low-income homes with school supplies and lunches, requiring the notification of the general assembly within 60 days of any consolidation of school districts, and urging law enforcement, the judiciary, community leaders others to partner to address truancy, the state General Assembly website states.

Harper supported local children by working with youth programs, sponsoring summer science camps for inner-city children, establishing model after-school and summer programs for at-risk adolescent youth, mentoring girls at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center, and sponsoring numerous youth sport teams like the Senator Harper Wildcats. 

She also hosted an annual community Easter egg hunt for 37 years. “We are grateful for her life’s work and I promised her that we will continue the tradition of her beloved `Kids Are Special Too’ Annual Easter Egg Hunt,” Linda Harper said. “On behalf of our entire family we are extremely grateful for all your support throughout the years.” 

Additionally she sponsored bills to establish Rosa Parks Boulevard and urged a solution to societal problems stemming from fatherless homes and divorce, the state’s website notes.

A dedicated advocate for women and the elderly, Harper sponsored and passed laws addressing domestic violence and increased legal protections to stop financial exploitation of the elderly by their caretakers. She also sponsored mandatory insurance coverage of breast reconstruction symmetry for breast cancer survivors, the Safe Haven law to save abandoned babies and Co-Sponsored the Day Care Incentive Act.

Senator Harper was also one of 21 Civil Rights figures honored at a Vanderbilt-South Carolina men’s basketball game in 2017, said NPL’s site.

She was critical in the 19th Senate District’s economic growth through the passage of numerous state budget amendments that benefited citizens and local colleges within her district with job training programs, workforce development efforts and funding for TSU and Meharry Medical College. 

Additionally, her work to grow the development of many of the city’s main attractions including the Music City Center, the Nashville Sounds Stadium, the Tennessee State Museum, the Downtown Nashville Library and the recently-opened, highly-anticipated National Museum of African American Music resulted in an influx of economic expansion and contributed to the vibrant diversity of one of the nation’s greatest tourist destinations. 

Harper’s efforts brought Tennessee its own NFL team with the Tennessee Oilers, now known as the Titans.

She was also the former President of the National Hook-Up of Black Women, the Nashville Women’s Political Caucus, The NAACP, Links, Inc., the Urban League of Middle Tennessee and Achievement Matters. 

Further, she was Chair of the Tennessee Commemorative Women’s Suffrage Commission, Vice Chair of the Tennessee Healthcare Commission, commissioner of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and was a member of the Board of Directors of the Nashville Symphony, the Third National Bank Economic Development Advisory Council, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame Board of Directors, the Nashville Downtown Partnership Board and the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Children’s Home, among others.

She retired from government service in 2018 after 30 years of dedication and was succeeded by Sen. Brenda Gilmore.

Sen. Harper’s services were handled by Lewis and Wright Funeral Home and visitation takes place today from 10-11 a.m. with the Celebration of Life occurring from the end of visitation to one p.m. with both taking place at TSU’s Gentry Center, 3500 John Merritt Blvd.