Senator Thelma Harper is a 1978 graduate of TSU and the Chairperson of the Tennessee Black Caucus; she is known as much for her sense of style as her politics. Senator Harper is the first African-American woman to be elected to the Senate, the first woman to preside over the Senate and the first Senator to lead the Black Caucus. Harper is known for not focusing on the fluffy stuff and for speaking her mind about the nuts and bolts of political issues. Harper has been in public service for thirty plus young years.
Thelma Harper has served as a state senator since 1991. She has chaired many committees including; Senate Government Operations Committee and a member of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, the Senate Correction Oversight Committee, and the Select Joint Committee on Children and Youth.
For eight years, Thelma Harper served as a member of the Nashville-Davidson County Metropolitan Council. She also was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992.
As a proud alumnus of TSU, Senator Harper has fought many battles for Big Blue that will never make the news. Her support of TSU keeps her engaged in many events that happens on the campus and in the community. The numerous meetings times may overlap and she maybe not please everyone but she wears grace under fire well. That is the public Senator Harper that many know.
But the woman beneath the beautiful and colorful hats that are worn literally and figuratively pales in comparison to the hats she wears behind the scenes as nurturer, consoler, and compassionate counselor. Away from legislative corridors, senate hearings, political debates about the rights of women and fighting for children, cameras, and ribbon cutting ceremonies, Senator Harper swaps her public political hats for her Miss Thelma hats. The Miss Thelma's nurturer hat is worn on Thursday nights to tutor young kids who have been labeled special needs because they need a firm but loving hand in their life to help them with school work . “Helping eight year olds keeps me young,” Senator Harper says with a laugh. That hat is also worn to read to elementary children several times a month at schools in North Nashville. The Miss Thelma’s consoler hat is worn to visit in women prison and to see the sick and shut often left behind.
The Miss Thelma's compassionate counselor hat is worn to meet with young girls who made mistakes early in life but still need to know they “uniquely and wonderfully” made in God’s eyes. The hat is not trimmed in colored judgment or scorned flowers. That special hat was worn to take a group of women on a field trip of sorts to see the play “Dream Girls” last fall. The women were treated to an impromptu meeting with the actors backstage to hear one of the lead actors confess about his painful past that lead to him spending time locked up. The meeting arranged by Miss Thelma showed the women that they too can rise above their circumstances. There are no public policy hearings on compassion and loving others. That incident was brought to my attention by one of the cast members who shared it with me. She was so touched by the meeting that she asked to remain in contact with the young women and Miss Thelma. As she told me the story, we both cried. TPAC’s “ Dream Girls” play left Nashville many months ago but the influence of that backstage encounter has remained with the women and the actors from the play.
Those hats worn by Senator Harper aka "Miss Thelma" are as vital to the good of the community and state as the legislative issues that often can be trivialized in political sound bites on the nightly news.
The hats of wife, mother, sister, aunt and businesswoman that Miss Thelma wears cannot be forgotten either. As we go about our daily lives, let’s look closer at the hats that are worn by trailblazers not on the public stage but the ones worn behind the curtains that not only will have impact today but for years to come.
(From the Big Blue Issue)