NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - Long-time Tennessee state Senator Thelma Harper has died. She was 80.
Linda Harper said her mom died peacefully and unexpectedly on Thursday morning.
"It is with an unimaginable sorrow and heartbreak that we announce the passing of my mother former State Senator Thelma Harper. She passed peacefully and unexpectedly this morning holding my hand," Linda Harper said in a statement posted on her mother's Facebook page. "She dedicated her life to her family and serving the people of Tennessee and the 19th District in the Senate and the 2nd District in the Metro Council. 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. On behalf of our entire family we are extremely grateful for all your support through the years."
She was the first African American woman elected to the Tennessee state Senate and was the longest serving female state Senator in state history when she retired.
"Thelma Harper was a titan and a trail blazer for women in politics," said House Minority Leader Karen Camper. "Her constituents were like family to her at every level of service. As an executive committee member, a member of Nashville's City Council and as the longest serving female senator in Tennessee history, Thelma Harper woke up every day thinking about how she could improve the lives of the people in her hometown. She was proud of Nashville and of her alma mater of Tennessee State University. She was a champion for children, the elderly and for the disadvantaged among us.
"She was the first African American woman state senator in Tennessee. Without Thelma Harper, I do not have the opportunity to become the first African American woman caucus leader in the Tennessee General Assembly. She served her community and our state with humor, tenacity and grace. She was a colleague, a mentor and a friend. It was an honor to know and work with her and she will be greatly missed."
Nashville State Rep. Harold Love Jr. served with Harper, as did his father Rep. Harold Love Sr.
"Senator Harper was like my legislative mother and always did her best to make sure I kept my focus," Harold Love Jr. said in a statement. "As the first black female Senator in Tennessee she was a trailblazer and set a tremendous example for how to advocate for your constituents. Her door was always open and she was a staunch defender of her district and for the entire state of Tennessee. I will truly miss her wise counsel."
The Senate Democratic Caucus issued a joint statement marking the death of 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.” - Senate Democratic Caucus
Harper announced in April 2018 that she would not seek re-election to her Senate seat.
Harper introduced presidential nominee Al Gore at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
Prior to her election to the Senate, Harper served eight years as a Metro councilwoman.
"Today the legendary Thelma Harper traded in her signature hat for a halo," said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally on social media. "A transformative public figure, she was a fierce advocate for her constituents and the city of Nashville. She was a role model for many and greatly respected by all who served with her. She will be missed."
Today the legendary Thelma Harper traded in her signature hat for a halo. A transformative public figure, she was a fierce advocate for her constituents and the city of Nashville. She was a role model for many and greatly respected by all who served with her. She will be missed. pic.twitter.com/ybiw28z7sg— Randy McNally (@ltgovmcnally) April 22, 2021
"Sen. Thelma Harper was a groundbreaking TN state senator, advocate for Nashville and Davidson County, and a wonderful lady," said Secretary of State Tre Hargett in a social media post. "She never failed to ask about my family, and always brightened the days of others. My family lifts up her loved ones in prayer during this time of grief."
Davidson County Register of Deeds Karen Johnson said Nashvillians "have lost part of the best within us" with Harper's death.
"Women, children, the elderly, the most vulnerable have lost someone who had the courage to stand up for them," Johnson said in a statement. "We as African American women have lost our beacon. We as elected officials from Metro to the State Capitol have lost our finest example. My heart goes out and my prayers go up for her daughter Linda, and all of her loved ones."