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, November 9, 1995

Gay community pleased with win in Carrboro

The News & Observer, Nov. 9, 1995

CARRBORO - Being mayor of this former mill town may not carry much political clout around the country. But now that Mike Nelson has been elected to the office, there will be a lot of people looking to him for leadership.

That's because on Tuesday, Nelson became only the fifth openly gay mayor in the country. And though Nelson insists nothing is extraordinary about his win, he still finds himself the highest-ranking openly gay elected official in the state. One day after his election, members of the local gay and lesbian community were beaming with pride. For them, Nelson's win shows that they can be judged on their ideas and not their sexuality. And for Chapel Hill and Carrboro, it cements a reputation for tolerance and being a kind of Southern haven for homosexuals.


Chapel Hill and Carrboro earned their liberal stripes years ago. Howard Lee became the first black mayor of a Southern town when Chapel Hill voters picked him in 1969. For some gays, that was a defining moment that showed the area was open to different peoples.

"I thought it was very important," said Joe Herzenberg, who became Chapel Hill's first openly gay council member in 1987. "His election was indicative of the degree of political acceptance here."


But perhaps the best example of the area's attitude toward homosexuals is Nelson's victory. Just two years after being elected to the Board of Aldermen, Nelson won almost twice as many votes as each of his two opponents.

"I think that in this area - and nothing indicates this more than Mike's victory - there are not very significant barriers for gay people," Herzenberg said.

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