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, December 1, 1987

Herzenberg Wins Seat - by Sean Rowe

Lambda, Carolina Gay & Lesbian Association Newsletter, page 8, December, 1987


On November 3, 1987, 3,575 Chapel Hill voters elected this state’s first openly gay politician. Joe Herzenberg, a 46-year old historian and former catfish rancher, who lost three previous bids for a seat on the town council, finally won…

Read original version as PDF in Lamdba archives

(Editor's note - The author of this article, Sean Rowe, is a novelist and former reporter for the Miami Herald. Sean was a close friend of Joe's and traveled with him to several continents during the 80's and 90's.

Orange County Commissioner and former mayor of Carrboro Mike Nelson convinced Joe to make one last run for the Town Council in 1987 and orchestrated a brilliant race as his campaign manager. In 1995, Mike would himself become the first openly gay mayor in N.C.

Interviewed by Joseph Mosnier in 1995, Joe recalled how "they had planned to turn any anti-gay attacks to their advantage in the race, believing that local voters would rally to support him if he was attacked for this reason." (Mosnier's words) This proved unneccesary, because Joe said from his '85 campaign on, he encountered very few incidents where his sexual preference was an issue in Chapel Hill.

Mike Nelson reflected on the significance of Joe's '87 victory in an October, 2007 post on his blog titled Twenty Years Later, written shortly before Joe's death.)