THE WOMAN WITH THE HATS
Thelma Harper’s entrances were always carefully orchestrated for maximum effect. As State Senator for District 19, which included downtown Nashville, she had a standing ex officio position on the Nashville Downtown Partnership’s Board of Directors. She made a point to be at the meetings unless she had a responsibility to be at the Capitol. Invariably a few minutes late, her driver would drop her off at the curb. She would enter the room dressed to the nines in a tailored pantsuit, jewelry and an elaborate broad-brimmed hat and choose a prominent seat at the table. It was always fun to see her outfits—she had almost 100 different hats! Senator Harper always asked to make comments at the end of the business meeting—updates on her legislative activity or how she was advocating for downtown. She’d earned the right to speak. And you always wanted to have her on your side!
She served 8 years on the Metro Council in the 1980’s, not hesitating to oppose policies of mayors and once being arrested for blocking the entrance to the Bordeaux landfill in protest. She was the first African American woman elected to the Tennessee State Senate, where she served almost 30 years until her retirement in 2018.
From 1980 to 2008 she was a state delegate to the Democratic National Convention. One of her happiest experiences was attending the January 20, 2009, inauguration of President Obama!
Senator Harper loved her “folk” in North Nashville. She and her husband Paul owned Harper’s Restaurant on Jefferson Street, which became a popular “meat ‘n three.” Once when Tom and I wanted to meet with her to discuss some State properties, she invited us to meet her for lunch at Harper’s. Of course she was wearing one of her colorful hats! It was crowded and the fried fish and fried chicken were delicious. Everyone there came over to greet the Senator—these were her people.
She’d long been involved as a community activist for civil rights and women’s suffrage. We were chatting one day and she told me she’d recently taken a busload of young women from TSU to visit T. Harry Burn’s home in Niota and make sure they knew about Tennessee’s role in ratifying the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. When I told her about my family connection to Burn (his mother and my maternal grandmother were first cousins), she was thrilled.
In August, 2008, Heather and I hosted a party for over 20 friends at The Hermitage Hotel to commemorate the 88th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. There were yellow roses, hors d’oeuvres and a signature cocktail we named “The Golden Aye.” Senator Harper came and enjoyed talking with everyone there about Harry T. Burn’s role in casting a deciding vote for suffrage.
In March, 2010, Senator Harper’s Nashville Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority staged a re-enactment of the 1913 Woman Suffrage March in Washington, D.C. Dressed in white suits and big hats, they marched from the Capitol Hill Baptist Church to the Tennessee State Museum. She invited me to make a speech about Harry T. Burn to the audience at the Museum and listed on the printed program “Ms. Sally Eaves Connelly and Ms. Charlotte Eaves Lefkowitz, Descendants of Harry T. Burn.” I borrowed a white hat to wear (at her insistence) and bought a white suit. Heather, Paul, Charlotte, Patrick, Julia, Sam and Eli were all there. Even though my family ties to Harry T. Burn were distant, he was after all from my home county and played a key role in getting the 19th Amendment passed. And Senator Harper never took for granted the power of a woman’s voice and vote.