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, February 13, 1996

Lightning Brown recalled as fighter on local, gay issues: Chapel Hill activist dies at 48

The News & Observer, Feb. 13, 1996

By Chris O'Brien

CHAPEL HILL - Even as he lay dying in a Carrboro home for AIDS patients in recent weeks, Lightning Brown couldn't stop working on local issues.

Brown was drafting an ordinance to clarify Chapel Hill's rules for people who run businesses in their homes. It was issues like this one, obscure yet crucial to people's lives, that fired Brown's blood during the past 20 years of being one of the most consistent and persuasive community activists in town. The only thing that finally could stop Brown from getting his way, it seems, was the AIDS virus that finally overwhelmed him Monday. He was 48.

"We have lost a great friend," said Joe Herzenberg, a former Town Council member. "And not just me, but the whole town."

Brown gained his greatest notoriety in 1981 when he became what was thought to be the first openly gay man to run for public office in North Carolina. He did nothing to shrink from his sexual preferences.

But he was unnerved by the amount of prejudice and the number of threats he encountered during the race.

"I think he got a lot of flak that was frightening," said Nancy Brown, his sister, who moved to Chapel Hill several months ago to care for him.

Though he failed in his bid for the Town Council, he became an inspiration for the local gay community.

"He tended to get his way because he kept at it," said Doug Ferguson, a founding member of the Orange Lesbian and Gay Association. "His intent was to make Chapel Hill a great place to live."

Brown's loss in the council race did nothing to diminish his involvement in public life. He became absorbed in local issues. It all flowed from Brown's philosophy, Herzenberg said.

"He believed that local issues mattered the most," he said. "He thought these were the things that really had an impact on people's lives."

That meant organizing apartment tenants in the early 1980s against the threat of building owners who wanted to upgrade to expensive condominiums. It also meant helping the town hammer out a plan to build greenways along area creeks and streams.

And it meant fighting for gay rights not just in the political arena, but also on the personal level. He encouraged gays and lesbians in the area to get involved with organizations and public life so that straight people would meet them and overcome their prejudices.

"He thought that was the most effective route toward gay liberation," Herzenberg said.

Brown came to the Triangle from Oregon in 1976 when he helped a friend move to the area.

Short of money, he stuck around and never left. He took several jobs with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including computer programming.

In 1990, Brown graduated from UNC's law school, but his illness kept him from practicing. So he turned his energies to things such as participating in clinical studies for HIV patients, his sister said.

Last year, Brown was appointed to the Orange Water and Sewer Authority board, of which he had been a frequent critic. He also lobbied local boards a year ago to pass laws banning discrimination against homosexuals.

And when the Chapel Hill Town Council passed a resolution in November honoring him, Brown took the occasion to lobby against a proposed gun sculpture on Franklin Street. He also asked the council to name the Bolin Creek Greenway - which he helped create - after him.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Friends Meeting House on Raleigh Road in Chapel Hill.

The family requests that donations be sent to ACT-UP Triangle.

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