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.

Thursday, May 31, 2001

Smith plantation house, land may come to life again

Chapel Hill Herald, May 31, 2001

CARRBORO - Town staff members have had initial discussions with developers about a possible residential project on Smith Level Road, on property that includes the old Smith plantation house.

"At this point, there is no project," said Chris Murphy, development review administrator for Carrboro. "There is no formal application."

But Murphy said prospective developers have asked the town for feedback on rough designs for a residential project.

The familiar house along Smith Level Road was built in the 1840s by members of the Smith family, from whom the Rev. Pauli Murray was descended. Murray's grandmother was born to a black slave and a white member of the slave-owning Smith family.


As Murray recounts the Smith family history in (her memoir) "Proud Shoes, An American Family," James Strudwick Smith married Delia Jones in the early 1800s. Jones was the daughter of Revolutionary War veteran Francis Jones, who had been granted several thousand acres for his military service.

Jones deeded about 1,500 acres at Smith Level Road to his granddaughter, Mary Ruffin Smith, the first-born child of James and Delia Smith.

The Smiths also had two sons, Sidney and Francis. According to Murray, the family owned a young slave named Harriet, whom Sidney raped. Harriet had a daughter by Sidney, named Cornelia, who was Murray's grandmother.

Murray descended from free blacks on her grandfather's side. Her grandfather, Robert Fitzgerald, was born in Delaware and came to North Carolina after the Civil War to help educate former slaves.

Fitzgerald met Cornelia Smith in Orange County and they were married.

Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910, but she grew up in Durham with her maternal grandparents and aunts.

Murray fought against discrimination as a writer, lawyer, professor, college vice president and deputy attorney general for California. At age 62, she entered seminary and eventually performed her first Holy Eucharist in Chapel Hill at the Chapel of the Cross, the church where her grandmother, Cornelia, had
been baptized. Murray was the first black woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.

For the past few years, the Orange County Human Relations Commission has given Pauli Murray Human Relations awards to residents and businesses in the county.

Chapel Hill resident Joe Herzenberg was one of the winners this year. Herzenberg read "Proud Shoes" soon after he moved to Chapel Hill in 1969 to study history, and he said he was inspired by Murray's story.

He also has had an interest for several years in the fate of the plantation house on Smith Level Road.

"It is one of the very few surviving plantation houses in the county," he said. "It's really a magnificent house, and it's in relatively good condition."

Herzenberg said historic preservationists at the state level also are aware of the house. He said he'd like to see someone living in the house who would take good care of it, and he'd also like to see an official historical marker placed there.

Herzenberg even went to Carrboro and talked to Murphy about the property, and Herzenberg said he's pleased with the initial recommendations by town staff.

Sunday, May 27, 2001

UNC-TV's programming is sometimes baffling

Chapel Hill News, May 27, 2001

By Kevin O'Kelly

"Something in Common," UNC-TV's documentary on teaching tolerance for diversity in North Carolina schools that premiered in April, will be re-broadcast June 13 at 9 p.m.

"Something" provides glimpses of impressive initiatives in different schools across the state to cope with rapidly changing student populations. For example, in 1987, there were two Hispanic students in Chatham County schools. Now approximately 40 percent of the residents of Siler City are Latino.


One of the tolerance issues covered in "Something" is tolerance for gays and lesbians. And this is a production of UNC-TV, the same network that refused to air "It's Elementary" - a documentary on teaching tolerance for gays and lesbians to elementary school students - in 1999. And it's the same network that is airing a number of documentaries on gay and lesbian issues in June.


The production of "Something in Common" was UNC-TV's response to public criticism of its refusal to air "It's Elementary."

In November 1999, UNC-TV Director Tom Howe told The News & Observer of Raleigh that he supported the decision not to air "It's Elementary" because the program "advocates and promotes rather than analyzes."

Well, "Something in Common" has a slant as well: It advocates tolerance. And that includes tolerance for gays and lesbians. Having seen "Something in Common," I can't understand why they didn't show "It's Elementary."

Programming Director Diane Lucas refused to discuss the issue.

"I don't want to relive any of that experience again," she said. However, she added, "rather than air a documentary that focused on one issue, we wanted a program that was more inclusive of issues facing our schools."

Not showing a documentary on gay issues is inclusive?

To be truly inclusive, they should have just shown both. I thought it possible that UNC-TV balked at showing "It's Elementary" because the focus was on elementary schools. Perhaps it was thought that grade school is too early for children to be exposed to sexual orientation issues.

Yet on June 9, at 11 p.m. UNC-TV is broadcasting "Our House," a documentary profiling children with gay and lesbian parents. And on June 24 at 11 p.m., UNC-TV will air the "P.O.V." documentary "Scout's Honor," on 12-year-old Steven Cozza's campaign against the Boy Scouts' anti-gay policy.

It just doesn't make any sense. I wondered if the gay-lesbian segment of "Something in Common" was acceptable because it involved high school students instead of elementary school students. And because it was in the last 10 minutes of the program. And as for those other documentaries - they involve children already exposed to sexual orientation issues: they don't suggest teaching tolerance for gays and lesbians in supposedly innocent elementary school classrooms.

I recently discussed the issue with Joe Herzenberg, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member who has been active in local gay issues. I asked him, "Am I being paranoid by devoting so much thought to this?"

"There's definitely paranoia involved," he said. "But it's not yours."

Friday, May 18, 2001

'Limits of Dissent' brings back trial of Junius Scales

Chapel Hill Herald, May 18, 2001


CHAPEL HILL - Lou Lipsitz had never written a play before he wrote "The Limits of Dissent." But the play practically wrote itself, the former UNC political science professor said earlier this week.

That's because the play is based on the 1950s trial of Junius Scales.

In 1956 and 1957, Scales was tried and convicted in Federal Court in Greensboro for violating the Smith Act, which was passed in 1940 and prohibited even being a member of an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the government.

"There's nothing invented in the play. All the characters, all the testimony are real. I did some editing, a little smoothing out here and there for the sake of clarity," Lipsitz said.

Lipsitz had been commissioned to do the play in 1976 by Warren Nord, then with the N.C. Humanities Council. Nord now directs UNC's Program in the Humanities.

Nord knew Lipsitz was a writer (he writes poetry) and that the UNC political science professor had a strong interest in civil liberties issues.

Lipsitz retired from UNC in 1995, continues to write poetry and also works as a psychotherapist.

The playwright said he chose the trial of Scales because of local interest and issues involved.

Scales lived in Carrboro and Chapel Hill and went to UNC.

Joe Herzenberg, who performs in the play, said he recently went by Scales' home in Carrboro at 201 Carr St. and took a photograph to display during the staged readings. The exact location of where Scales lived in Chapel Hill is not known. Scales and his mother moved to Chapel Hill, where Scales graduated from Chapel Hill High School in 1936, Herzenberg said.

Scales' father had been a real estate developer in Greensboro but was ruined in the Depression, Herzenberg said.

Scales came from a prominent family in the state; his great-uncle had served as governor. This revival of the play also features "local color" in its actors, Lipsitz said.

Herzenberg, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member, plays the judge.

"It's an easy role. He doesn't have much to say," Herzenberg said.

"The judge was a very conservative man," Herzenberg said. "At one point, he rules that writing your congressman could be illegal - the first step toward overthrowing the government."

Joe Straley, a retired UNC professor of physics and well-known activist, will actually play himself. He was a character witness for Scales during the trial.

"And, he has to read his own testimony," Lipsitz said.

The idea to revive the play came from Mark Dorosin, attorney, Carrboro alderman and current president of the local ACLU chapter, Herzenberg said, adding that other actors also are on the ACLU board.

The cast also features Dorosin, Pat Devine, Malcolm Logan, Margaret Brown, Marina Barber, David Neal and Jonathan Broun. Former UNC student body President Aaron Nelson, currently director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, plays "The Bailiff."

Issues also made the case of Scales good fodder for a play, Lipsitz said.

"There are always people for various reasons who want to suppress controversial speech," Lipsitz said. "There are free speech issues of different kinds. It's good to have a historical perspective. In America, we have these episodes of suppression."

Then there are the moral questions raised by Scales' case.

There was the issue of his honor: not wanting to dishonor himself and his friends by testifying, Lipsitz said.

There are the questions about the tolerance of unpopular views as well as how honesty and truth, or the lack thereof, figured into the verdict, Lipsitz said.

The main issue, as Lipsitz sees it, and the reason why he titled his play as he did: "What kinds of limits are there to dissent against a government you think is corrupt and evil? When does free speech turn into the advocacy of action? Where's the limit?"

The prosecution could not prove that Scales had committed any violent acts or had plans to overthrow the government, Lipsitz said.

The trial had consisted of 13 days of prosecution testimony mostly about the organization of the Communist Party, portrayed as a secret and violent conspiracy, but there was no actual proof the organization had done anything, Lipsitz said.

"They were trying to convict people for their thoughts," he said.

The case against Scales was very weak, but he was convicted both times, the playwright said.

"He was convicted because of the atmosphere of the times," Lipsitz said.

This was the era dominated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others who feared the Soviet Union.

The playwright said what struck him about the trial in particular was the disillusionment of the ex-communists who testified for the government and the loss of a sense of proportion.

"Scales is obviously not a dangerous man," Lipsitz said.

Scales was not even a member of the Communist Party during the trials in 1956-57, Lipsitz said.

He had joined the party in the 1930s when he thought it the best way to address the racial situation as well as poverty brought about by the Great Depression, the playwright said.

He, as others, later became disillusioned about the Communist Party, Lipsitz said.

The playwright read through a foot-tall stack of transcripts from the second trial of Scales to get material for his 90-minute play.

"There is moving and funny testimony buried in the three weeks of testimony. I chose the compelling human moments and humor that I found," Lipsitz said.

The play has a lot of humor, including the evasive testimony of Esther Gillis, a textile worker from High Point who was asked to name people who attended a meeting and who managed, in various ways, to not answer the question, Lipsitz said.

The Supreme Court upheld the verdict barely at 5-4 and prominent people campaigned to get Scales out of jail, Lipsitz said.

But Scales wound up serving about a year and a half in a federal prison in Pennsylvania and while there hosted an opera show on the prison radio, Lipsitz said.

President John F. Kennedy commuted Scales' sentence on Christmas Eve 1962.

Scales then worked as a proofreader for The New York Times and vowed never to return to North Carolina because he thought it would cause more pain to his family and friends here, Lipsitz said.

In 1976, Lipsitz said he had written to Scales about the play, and Scales had told him not to do it because the incident had brought pain to so many people. But Lipsitz said he thought Scales was wrong, that the play should be written.

"It would help to heal what had happened," Lipsitz said.

Scales wound up coming to see a performance of the play in 1977 in Raleigh.

"It changed his life," Lipsitz said. "He came out of seclusion, wrote an autobiography, published by The University of Georgia Press. He taught at the Journalism School at Columbia University."

Herzenberg said he saw Scales once at a reception held in the Morehead building after publication of Scales' autobiography. Women - high school classmates - flocked to see him again for the first time since high school.

"He really was a charming man," Herzenberg said. Scales now lives in Pine Bush, N.Y.

Herzenberg said he also attended the performance of Lipsitz's play in the '70s at an Orange County courthouse, where a "jury" of community members wound up being hung because of a debate about whether to make the decision based on the standards of the '50s or of the present day.

"Juries" at the other 29 performances, all held in courtrooms throughout the state, found Scales innocent, Lipsitz said.

What had seemed threatening 20 years before did not seem that way when the play was performed. "People were really afraid in the '50s," Lipsitz said.

The play premiered in the Federal Courthouse in Greensboro where Scales was tried. "What really gets to me is how difficult it is to transport ourselves back in time. Audiences of today laugh at things that people found very serious back in the 1950s," Herzenberg said. "I just hope people remember these things weren't intended as jokes."

The Smith Act was passed before World War II to attack radicals, Herzenberg said. "Throughout our history, there have been repeated periods of political paranoia, usually from the far left. The main point is that you should know that these things can happen in our society."

But the limits of dissent have broadened since Scales' trial, Herzenberg said. "We're a much freer society than we were then."

Staged reading

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro ACLU presents "The Limits of Dissent" by Lou Lipsitz. A public staged reading of the play takes place at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday inside the Chapel Hill Courthouse on the corner of Henderson and East Franklin streets. The play is based on the 1950s trial of Junius Scales, the only American ever sent to prison just because he belonged to a political party - the Communist Party.

No admission will be charged, but donations will be accepted.

Junius Scales died of a stroke in August, 2002. He was 82.