Joe Herzenberg — the first openly gay elected official in the American South, an ardent defender of civil rights and the environment, and the unofficial Mayor of Franklin Street — died on October 28, 2007 at UNC Hospital. He was 66 years old.
Joe 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 participate in voter registration for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically-black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. A very popular instructor, Joe was named an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. During this time, Joe was briefly married.
Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in the early 1970s to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, immediately immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for Chapel Hill town council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the council that year to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the council, becoming the South’s first openly gay elected official. He was re-elected in 1991 with the highest vote tally in the four seat race (and, up to that time, the highest vote total ever in a Town Council race), and served until 1993. As a council member, Joe was responsible for creation of the Chapel Hill greenway system and enactment of the town’s tree protection ordinance.
Joe remained active in civic and political activities. He was a founding board member of Pride PAC, a statewide lesbian and gay political action committee now known as Equality NC. He also served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Fund for Southern Communities. He served as chair of the local greenways commission, the tree commission, and the libraries bond task force, and served on several other local boards. Joe also organized Chapel Hill’s annual Bill of Rights Day celebration.
Throughout his time in Chapel Hill, Joe was an ardent Democratic Party supporter, serving as longtime chair of his precinct. His party activism brought him brief notoriety in 1984, when Senator Jesse Helms angrily raged at his opponent Jim Hunt during a live televised debate “You’re supported by people like Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown!” – a moment that Joe was forever after proud of. Joe received a Citizen’s Award from the Independent newsweekly in 1984, the first year that award was given.
Joe was an enthusiastic traveler who visited all seven continents and all 50 states. He also loved art and music. He was a member of Chapel Hill Kehillah.
Joe is survived by his brother Bobby, his sister-in-law Debbie, his nephew Michael, and his niece Sarah. He was pre-deceased by his brother David.
In lieu of flowers, well-wishers are asked to make contributions in his name to Equality NC, http://www.equalitync.org, or the Inter-faith Council for Social Services, http://www.ifcweb.org.
Joe visiting the Netherlands, 1998.