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, September 28, 1993

A Fixture Resigns From Council: Colorful, quirky tenure ends quietly

News & Observer, Sept. 28, 1993


CHAPEL HILL -- Joe Herzenberg's departure from the Town Council came in stark contrast to the lively manner that characterized his career as the town's most colorful elected official.

Late last week, Herzenberg, 52, left the board quietly, handing in a hand-written resignation letter. In doing so, he did what his colleagues had been trying to persuade him to do for a year, since he was convicted of not paying taxes. The threat of a recall election finally nudged him off the council. "I did have this little bit of freedom walking out of Town Hall," he said over a snack of rye toast and banana pudding a day after he stepped down.

On Friday, he reflected on a political career as a council member from 1979 to 1981 and from 1987 to 1993.

Perhaps the most accessible council member in town history, Herzenberg is popular with Chapel Hill's gay and lesbian community and with the town's black population. He was the top vote-getter in the last election.

Other than the council position, he has not held down a regular job in years. He does not own a car. Instead, he strolls the downtown streets, where he has become a fixture. He can be found almost nightly at funky restaurants like Pepper's Pizza and Crook's Corner.

"I think you see more when you don't drive," he says.

His constituents have noticed his quirky habits. Like accepting messages on his answering machine both for himself and his cat, Harriet Levy. Like running old-fashioned, door-to-door campaigns.

A historian with a degree from Yale University, Herzenberg arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 for graduate school. He began a biography of Frank Porter Graham while at UNC, but has never completed it.

Herzenberg, a strong civil rights advocate, taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where he worked for black voter registration and made the rounds of restaurants with black friends crusading for desegregation.

"Joe has a history of identifying with those who have been oppressed in our society," said former colleague John Dittmer, a history professor at Depauw University.

Herzenberg grew up in the tiny zinc-mining town of Franklin, N.J., where his Jewish father ran a drug store and his Presbyterian mother instilled in him a keen interest in Democratic politics.

He said his religious background and his homosexuality made him feel different from an early age. Eventually, when he went into politics, he wanted to represent people who were different, too.

"Things like my civil rights activities also served as a surrogate for civil rights for myself," he said. Herzenberg, who was the state's only openly gay elected official, pioneered the way for other homosexual candidates, including two men running this year in local elections in Carrboro and Asheville.

His biggest effect on the town?

"Being open to all kinds of people," he said. "Being willing to listen to all kinds of people even if they're developers and even if they're street people."

Former council colleague Bev Kawalec said Herzenberg's political energy was undeniable.

"He's extremely responsive to the people," she said. "He makes himself accessible, seemingly tirelessly."

Herzenberg says he won't be remembered for any one pet project or big development, but instead for small deeds for citizens who come to him for help.

Now, he says, he'll find other things to keep him busy.

"I have plenty of things to do," he said. "The inside of my house needs painting."

Illustration: photo

Joe Herzenberg was the most accessible member of the Chapel Hill Town Council and the top vote-getter in the last election.

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