Former Tennessee Sen. Thelma Harper, who became the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate, died Thursday. She was 80.
The longtime Nashville lawmaker’s daughter, Linda Harper, said in a statement that her mother died “peacefully and unexpectedly” Thursday while holding her hand.
Harper, who became a senator in 1989 and was first elected to her seat in 1991, became the longest-serving female senator in Tennessee before she decided not to seek reelection in 2018.
“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.”
The news of her death drew fond remembrances from both Republicans and Democrats at the Tennessee Capitol.
“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,” the state Senate’s Democratic Caucus said in a statement.
Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called Harper a “transformative public figure,” “a fierce advocate for her constituents and the city of Nashville,” and a role model. In a tribute on Twitter, he also made reference to her fondness for eye-catching hats.
“Today the legendary Thelma Harper traded in her signature hat for a halo,” McNally tweeted.
Harper served as the first chairperson of the Tennessee Black Caucus. A key figure in Tennessee Democratic politics, she introduced former Vice President Al Gore, then the presidential nominee, at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
Before Harper became a senator, The Tennessee State University graduate was a member of Nashville’s Metro Council.