Nashville, TENN. — Longtime State Sen. Thelma Harper, the first African American woman to serve in the State Senate, has passed away, according to the Tennessee Senate Democrats. She was 80.
Harper was elected to the Senate in 1991, serving in Nashville’s 19th Senate District. She was the longest-serving female State Senator in Tennessee history. Prior to her election to the Senate, Harper served eight years as a Metro councilwoman.
During her time as Senator, Harper was a strong advocate for the urban core of Nashville that she represented. She proposed legislation that would rename a portion of U.S. Highway 41 as Rosa Parks Boulevard, which was later successfully passed in both the House and the Senate. Harper was very active in getting funds for Tennessee State University, Meharry Medical College, and many non-profit organizations located in North Nashville.
She also played an integral role in the economic development of the 19th Senate District, which includes Downtown Nashville. Harper was instrumental in the development of the Music City Center, the Downtown Nashville Library and NFL bringing the Titans Football team to Nashville.
The Senate Democratic Caucus issued a joint statement on Senator Harper’s death.
“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.”