Thelma Harper, a Democrat who became the first African American woman to be elected to the Tennessee Senate, died Thursday. She was 80 years old.
The death was confirmed by her daughter Linda Harper. She didn’t say where her mother died or what caused it.
Ms. Harper joined the Senate in 1989 and was the longest serving senator in the state when she retired in 2018.
“Whether she fought for her neighbors in the landfill, served a community organization or chaired a legislative hearing, Thelma Harper was a strong voice for her community, for justice and for our most vulnerable children,” the Senate Democratic Caucus said in a statement .
Mrs. Harper was the first chairwoman of the Tennessee Black Caucus. In the mid-2000s, she successfully pushed for a section of US Highway 41 in Nashville to be renamed in honor of civil rights hero Rosa Parks.
It also had a national presence. In 2000, she introduced Vice President Al Gore, the presidential candidate, at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden, New York, in a speech titled “The Al Gore I Know,” describing his time as an elected officer in Tennessee .
“How many families,” she said said in the speech“When we called Al Gore, he always listened to our voices. He always responded to our needs. And he always fought on our side. “
In 2008 she led Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Tennessee.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, a Republican, called Ms. 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 referred to their penchant for flashy hats.
“Today the legendary Thelma Harper traded her signature hat for a halo,” he wrote.
Thelma Harper was born on December 2, 1940 in Brentwood, Tennessee, south of Nashville. In 1978 she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting from Tennessee State University in Nashville. Before joining the Senate, she served on the Metro Council in Nashville for eight years. Her husband Paul died in 2018.
That same year when asked why she was retiring, she told The Tennessean that it was time for the next generation of leaders to take over and added, “Look, man, I’m already always here.”
The New York Times contributed to the coverage.