Nina Harper was a member of the Democratic State Central Committee and director of the Oliver Community Association.
Nina Harper was a member of the Democratic State Central Committee and director of the Oliver Community Association. (Handout)

Nina Rosita Harper, a retired AT&T manager and longtime East Baltimore community activist who served in the Maryland House of Delegates, died of complications of cancer Dec. 29 at Good Samaritan Hospital. The Belair-Edison resident was 68.

She had been a 16-year member of the Democratic State Central Committee and was director of the Oliver Community Association in 2013 when she was appointed as a state delegate by Gov. Martin O’Malley to fill the remaining term of the late Del. Hattie Harrison. Ms. Harper was a founding member and strategist with the East End Forum, a political group started in the early 1980s that helped launch political careers. She also worked on campaigns and transition teams for several city mayors, including Mayor Catherine Pugh and former mayors Kurt Schmoke, Sheila Dixon and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

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At the time she took the reins of the Oliver association, it lacked leadership and funding, recalled Carl Stokes, a former City Council member and friend since kindergarten at St. Francis Xavier school.

“Nina went into the organization and pulled things together,” Mr. Stokes said. “Nina was the type of individual who did all the little items that had to be done so the bigger deal came together. She did whatever was necessary with the organization, keeping the books, raising money, trying to find board members, and she did the same things in the campaigns. … She was the main cog, but also the person who made sure the details got done.”

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As the community association director, she worked with City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young to decrease the building rent at the Oliver Center and ran an annual holiday program to give away hats, gloves and turkeys.

Mr. Stokes, now the director of Banneker Blake Academy of Arts and Sciences, recalled that mayors counted on Ms. Harper’s community expertise and advice.

“All the mayors would call upon Nina because Nina would speak to them directly, honestly and forthrightly, and they valued talking to a person who would not just say ‘yes,’ ” he said. “Nina wouldn't just answer in the affirmative because it was expected, but she would speak objectively.”

After serving out Ms. Harrison’s term as a delegate, Ms. Harper became ill and decided not to seek election, said her sister, Carlita Kearney of Perring Loch in Northeast Baltimore.

Born in Baltimore as the oldest child of Andres Himan and Geneve Mello Himan, Ms. Harper grew up on North Aisquith Street in East Baltimore and attended Catholic schools. She graduated in 1968 from St. Frances Academy.

Part of a large, influential East Baltimore family, Ms. Harper was close to and influenced by her outgoing grandmother, Nellie Mello, who was also active in the community, Ms. Kearney said.

“She and my grandmother were very close,” Ms. Kearney said. “I remember her going to CYO and bingo and the market with my grandmother, so the relationship there was very special. … She was always one to want to help others, as my grandmother was. That’s what started it.”

Besides her family, Ms. Harper always believed her success stemmed from her education at St. Frances, run by the the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of black nuns in the nation.

The sisters instilled pride, community service and a rigorous education, Ms. Harper told The Sun for an article when the Oblate Sisters’ founder, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, became a candidate for canonization.

"I am so proud to be a product of the Oblate sisters," Ms. Harper said in that article, noting that she went on to study business management and that she ran for the City Council in 1995, though unsuccessfully. "Their priorities were to educate poor black children, and so many of us have gone on to great things."

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A busy mother of five, she served both her family and The Sun, for which she was its Eastern Shore correspondent.

Soon after high school, she found a job at the former C&P Telephone Co. with the help of an aunt, Pauline Mello Lewis. She moved into management at AT&T, where she spent her career, and retired in 2000 after 30 years. She returned to school, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in administration from Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore in 2001.

She was passionate about her work on behalf of the Catholic Church and the East Baltimore community, her sister said. She was a lifelong member of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, the first African-American Catholic church in the U.S., where she was an active member and leader in many church groups. She served as president of the church’s Pastoral Council, on the finance committee and as an adviser to the church’s youth ministry. Like grandmother Nellie Mello, she was a Grand Lady of the Ladies Auxiliary Knights of St. Peter Claver. She served in numerous roles in the Catholic Daughters of the Americas,.a women’s organization founded in 1903.

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She became a community advocate and organizer with Baltimore United in Leadership Development.

“She loved to talk to people,” said her son, Darryl M. Harper, of Belair-Edison. “She loved dealing with people and helping people out with their problems.”

Ms. Harper also wrote articles for the Catholic Review and was a recipient of the Mother Mary Lange Award and the Unsung Black Catholic Woman Award.

Her 1969 marriage to the late Johnny Harper ended in divorce.

A wake will be held at 10 a.m., with a Mass at 11 a.m., Monday at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 1501 E. Oliver St., Baltimore.

Besides her son and sister, she is survived by a brother-in-law, Kenneth Kearney of Northeast Baltimore; nieces Kelli Kearney Hill and Kristin Kearney; a great-niece, Morgan Hill; a nephew, Zachary Hill; a nephew-in-law, Vincent Hill; two aunts, Marion Mello Forde and Dorothy Mello; and many cousins and godchildren.

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