Former Sen. Thelma Harper, first Black woman in Tennessee Senate, dies at 80

April 24, 2021

Former Sen. Thelma Harper, Tennessee’s longest-serving female state senator and the first Black woman elected to the chamber, died Thursday.

Harper, a Democrat from Nashville, was 80 years old. Her death was confirmed by members of both the Tennessee Senate and House Democratic caucuses who had been in touch with Harper’s daughter, Linda, though the circumstances of her death are unclear.

“She passed peacefully and unexpectedly this morning holding my hand,” Linda Harper wrote in a post on her mother’s political Facebook page.

Entering the Senate in 1989, Harper made history serving nearly 30 years as a state senator. But she was also a prominent Nashvillian in her roles as a mentor and mother figure in the community, easily recognizable by her large signature hats.

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