By Emmanuel Freeman
NASHVILLE, TN (TSU News Service) — Those who remember the late former state Sen. Thelma Harper know she’d be smiling from ear to ear right now just hearing about Tennessee State University. Her love for her alma mater was unwavering. Whether in the Senate where she fought fiercely for equitable funding for TSU, or in the community where she was a powerful voice, or at events on campus, Harper was an advocate like no other.
“Senator Thelma Harper was 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 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.”
Harper, a Democrat and the first black woman elected to the state Senate in 1989, died April 22. She was 80. A native of Brentwood, Tennessee, Harper graduated from TSU in 1978, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting. She went on to break many glass ceilings and earned many “firsts” in history as a politician and a national figure. In all, she never forgot her TSU.
“Her commitment to Tennessee State University is measured by what we see on the campus,” said fellow TSU alum and state Rep. Dr. Harold Love, Jr. “Fighting for students to have access to great academic programs, promoting TSU equal funding – for me, that was one of the joys when I first got elected to be able to work alongside her to have TSU not forgotten about in the state budget.”
In one final visit to her alma mater, and in appreciation of the late state senator’s lifelong commitment to TSU, the University served as the backdrop for Harper’s “Celebration of Life” service in the Gentry Complex Center on May 6. President Glover, along with administrators, staff, students, faculty, alumni and the community filed by to pay their final respect.
Barbara Murrell, a TSU alumna and former administrator, remembers Harper as a TSU student and her rise as a state and national figure.
“Senator Harper was a servant leader who was always available to focus on the needs of her alma mater, Tennessee State University and the community she served,” said Murrell, retired TSU vice president for student affairs. “She was respected, admired and appreciated by all who observed her willingness to accept the motto of her alma mater, think, work, serve and make it her own.”
Danielle Knight and Marissa Faith King were Harper’s mentees when they interned at the Capitol as TSU students. They recalled the late lawmaker’s personal involvement in their development.
“Sen. Harper helped me a lot as an intern working with her in the General Assembly,” said Knight, a 2018 TSU graduate in political science, who was Harper’s last intern up to the senator’s retirement the same year. “As a student, she impacted my life and inspired me so much working with her that I decided to become a legislator, to help people in my community as she always did.” Currently a lobbyist aid with the state and a financial services representative with a credit union, Knight’s career goal is to become an elected official.
For King, who interned with two other lawmakers but interacted with Harper and her staff on many bills, she said the late senator taught her to be firm in a world dominated by men and competing political interests.
“She taught us as black female interns it is okay to stand your ground,” said King, a 2017 criminal justice graduate and an executive legislative assistant in the state House of Representatives. “She told me, ‘It is always necessary to have a seat at the table and make sure you’re being heard and being respected.’”
Harper was always a major presence at the annual TSU Day at the Capitol, when a wave of TSU blue – students, administrators, faculty, staff – converged on the Capitol with displays of academic offerings and cutting-edge research. She made sure to personally invite her fellow lawmakers to see the “pride of her alma mater.”
Frank Stevenson, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said Harper’s “consistent voice for opportunities for TSU was unmatched in the state Legislature.”
“She never missed being a part of the Homecoming events, including being at the parade every year,” Stevenson said. “She never missed celebrating our graduation services. She was just amazing to this university and our campus community.”
Additionally, while Harper was fighting for TSU in the Tennessee General Assembly, she was also hands-on at the university, mentoring students, especially young women about their personal choices and career goals. She served on the advisory board of the Women’s Center from the inception of the center in 2007 until her passing. She was among the first recipients of the Women of Merit and Legend Award given by the center each year to upstanding women in the community. At the 2018 WOLM awards ceremony, President Glover presented Harper with a special award for her “trailblazing years as a public servant.”
“She was very helpful and diligent in supporting women’s and student scholarship,” said center director Seanne Wilson. “She was one of the first to provide seed money and scholarship dollars to start the center. She mentored some of the young ladies on professional development, and really just gave them access to her.”
She was buried Thursday at Greenwood Cemetery following the service at TSU.