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, April 8, 1997

History is not always rosy

Fine lines and firing lines

The News & Observer, April 8, 1997


CHAPEL HILL -- He was summoned to town to help them create their first piece of public art. He told them to remember the violence. They told him to take his ideas and go home. Thomas Sayre of Raleigh, one of the state's most respected conceptual artists, didn't ask to help Chapel Hill create a public sculpture. But Sayre finds himself caught up in the struggle of a town coming to grips with the idea that bad things - violent things - can happen in their peaceful little village.

Two years ago, Sayre offered the idea of constructing five benches at the sites of the town's most shocking shootings. The benches would be constructed of dismantled firearms collected in a gun buyback program. "In order to deal with evil," he says, "you must own up to it."


When Sayre introduced his first vision for the Chapel Hill project, people were struggling with the reality that their town was no longer the tiny Village on the Hill. The town was still in shock over a tragedy that had rocked the state.

On Jan. 26, 1995, UNC law student Wendell Williamson, wearing military-style fatigues, went on a methodical - and still unexplained - shooting spree down Franklin Street, killing two people at random.

"After that happened, I felt that the town was in the exact state as I was in," says Ruby Sinreich, who from a window saw Williamson kill UNC undergraduate Kevin Reichardt. "We were all shocked." Ten months after the shootings, Williamson was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He is being treated at a
mental hospital.

Joe Herzenberg lives on Cobb Terrace, where Williamson began his deadly rampage. He thinks some kind of memorial is necessary to commemorate the tragedies that have occurred in this town.

"I thought it was important not only to have a memorial, but to have it downtown," says Herzenberg, whose 27-year residency in Chapel Hill included an eight-year stint on the town council. "I think it's really good to have a Holocaust museum or Vietnam wall and other things to remind people that history is not always rosy."