Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

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Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Tuesday, November 6, 1979

Joe’s first campaign for public office, 1979

Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen race, 1979

During Joe's first unsuccessful campaign for the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen (later re-named the Town Council), in 1979, he came in fifth in the race to fill four seats. He was not publicly out at this time, although as one longtime observer of the Triangle's gay community claimed when interviewed in 2000 by Chris McGinnis as part of Listening For A Change: A History of Gay Men and Transgender People in the South, "everyone knew Joe was gay."

Following the election, partially because of his status as the runner up with the highest vote total, Joe was appointed to fill Gerry Cohen’s unexpired term as Alderman, when Cohen stepped down to run for Mayor. He served two years in office, but would lose his race for re-election in 1981, the same year his partner, Lightning Brown, also ran unsuccessfully for the Board.