Funeral planned for state’s first black female senator

State Sen. Alice Varnado Harden

From Media Reports

JACKSON – State Sen. Alice Varnado Harden, a Democrat from Jackson who was a passionate voice for education and domestic violence victims during her 24 years in the Legislature, has died. She was 64.

State Sen. Alice Varnado Harden

Her death was announced Dec. 6, by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. She died at a Jackson hospital after a lengthy illness, friends said. Other details of her death were not released. She is survived by her husband, Dennis, and a daughter.

“She was a great person, a great legislator and a good community leader, and a good friend,” said Rep. Credell Calhoun, D-Jackson.

Harden’s body will lie in state Thursday, Dec. 13 at Mississippi’s State Capitol in Jackson from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., according to sources at Westhaven Memorial Funeral Home.

Visitation is at 4 p.m. Thursday and a memorial service begins at 6 p.m. at Black’s Chapel Missionary Church in Jackson.

Harden’s funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at Greater St. James Missionary Baptist Church with burial in the Cedar Lawn Cemetery.

A former educator, Harden was the first black woman elected to the Mississippi Senate, winning office in 1987 and serving until her death. She was known as an advocate for public schools.

Harden had served in the Senate since 1988 from Hinds County. She had served as chairman of both the education, universities and colleges and elections committees.

She was re-elected in 2011 and was serving on the appropriations and education committees. Her death opens a second vacancy in the 52-member state Senate. Bennie Turner, a West Point Democrat, died Nov. 27.

Harden was a former teacher and former president of the Mississippi Association of Educators. She was native of Pike County. She got her bachelor’s and masters’ degrees in education from Jackson State University. She taught physical education and science before being elected to the Senate.

She was education chairman during some lean fiscal years in Mississippi.

In a 2000 interview with the Associated Press, Harden said the challenge of budgetary shortfalls was getting state agencies together to determine what education dollars are already out there.

“We are going to have to do things that don’t impact the appropriations process,” she said. “That means maximizing the funds throughout state government that impact education. But it takes some collaboration among state agencies. There are policies that we can implement and we can even put off the funding for many of them.”

Former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who appointed Harden as education chairwoman in 2000, said in a statement that Harden “always looked out for the best interest of her constituents. Being a former teacher, Senator Harden had a special interest in education issues that affected the children of our state.”

Reeves said in a statement that Harden’s passion was “for improving Mississippi’s schools and universities.”

“She fought diligently for all Mississippi children to have an opportunity to receive a good education. Her dedication to public service will be missed,” Reeves said.

Gov. Phil Bryant described Harden as “a pioneer for civil rights and a staunch supporter of public education. She served her constituents well and will certainly be missed.”

“I had the pleasure to work with her during my term as lieutenant governor and was always impressed with her determination to stand for her beliefs,” Bryant said in a statement.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green, who served in the Mississippi House and was a long-time friend of Harden, told The Clarion-Ledger that Harden was “a great Christian woman, who gave voice to those who had no voice. Alice was unique. She will be missed by me and she will be missed by the state.”

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, a longtime friend of Harden’s, said: “Alice was a strong voice, not only a supporter of education, but a vocal, hard-working supporter and was adamant about trying to improve education in Mississippi. It’s a loss for the Senate, a loss for the state and a loss for Hinds County and Jackson. It will be hard to replace somebody with that many years of experience and that kind of passion.”

Kevin Gilbert, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said “the MAE family is very saddened” by Harden’s death.

“She was a dedicated civil servant and a true champion for children and public education,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said Harden was “a principal leader in gaining increased pay and respectability for the education profession and fought tireless to make sure public education was fair, equitable, and of quality for all students.”

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