One of Tennessee’s longest serving state senators has died. Nashville Democrat Thelma Harper, known for her endless energy and elegant hats, was 80 years old.
Harper retired from politics in 2018 after serving nearly 30 years in the Senate. She held the office longer than any woman ever has, and when she was elected in 1991, she was the first Black woman to capture a Senate seat.
She’s being remembered for fiercely representing her district and for prioritizing children in her legislative work and constituent affairs. She held an annual Easter egg hunt for more than 35 years, and she was known for having a personal touch, even in politics.
“If she really wanted to have a conversation, she would invite you for tea cakes and coffee,” says Davidson County property assessor Vivian Wilhoite, who met Harper when she attended Tennessee State University.
Harper became a godmother to Wilhoite’s son. But Wilhoite says she was kind of like a mother to all of Nashville, offering advice and trying to be a good example.
“If they don’t expect you to be there, go anyway,” she recalls Harper saying.
Before her election to the Senate, Harper also served two terms on the Metro Council. She was seen as a key figure by Democrats and Republicans, a person whose endorsement was needed in order to convince others to join a cause or support legislation.
“She never let awards and accolades come before the work of the people,” current Democrats in the state Senate said in a joint statement. “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.”
Harper was seen as less effective in her later years, even attracting a primary challenger in 2014. But she retained the support of key Democratic figures until she retired. She announced she would leave in 2018 after Brenda Gilmore, who now holds the seat, announced her bid.
While only serving on the state and local levels, Harper had a presence in national Democratic politics. She regularly served as a delegate and spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2000, supporting the presidential campaign of Tennessean Al Gore.
“Senator Harper was everywhere. You wondered where she got this energy from,” said state Rep. Harold Love, Jr., D-Nashville. “You just don’t imagine that she had the time, but she made the time for everybody.”
WPLN’s Ambriehl Crutchfield contributed to this reporting.