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, December 7, 2004

Local progressive ideas boost gay rights issues

The Daily Tar Heel, Dec. 7, 2004


Of the six openly gay officials ever elected to office in North Carolina, four have been elected in Chapel Hill or Carrboro.

Although many agree on the source of the apparent openness toward gay rights, there is debate on how progressive the area really is.

"The first victories are usually in the more progressive areas," said Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, one of four openly gay mayors in the South. "Orange County is certainly one of the more progressive areas in the state."

Former Chapel Hill Town Council member Joe Herzenberg, who became the state's first openly gay elected official in 1987, also cited the towns' liberal reputations.

"I always thought that Chapel Hill would elect an openly gay official," he said. "University towns are traditionally ... more liberal and tolerant."

Council member Mark Kleinschmidt said Chapel Hill's history in playing a major role in activist movements is also key.

"We've been at the forefront of most civil rights movements," he said. "Generally, progressive and liberal people are the first to take on social justice issues."

Ian Palmquist, executive director for Equality NC, echoed the sentiment.

"Chapel Hill and Carrboro have had a long history with social justice issues," he said. "I think they are a little ahead of the rest of the state on issues like this."

Rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community are recent social issues the area has tackled.

At the council's March 22 meeting, Kleinschmidt presented a petition that would have asked the state to ignore the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Doing so would have allowed the town to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally elsewhere in the country and provide those couples with the same benefits accorded to married couples.

Nelson followed suit, making a similar petition at the March 25 Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting.

Both petitions were killed quickly in the N.C. General Assembly, but Kleinschmidt said his petition still has much support locally.

But for all the perceived local support toward the LGBT community, some harsh feelings toward the group still resonate.

"It's not completely easy," said Gloria Faley, former member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education. "There are a lot of folks in this community who are not happy with us."

Faley said that during her campaign for the school board, she received a number of anonymous phone calls and "a lot of nasty anonymous letters."

Faley said she is even more worried by the results of the Nov. 2 general election, in which 11 states approved state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

"I'm worried about the overall state of the nation," she said. "I worry about people portraying other people as moral or immoral."

But Kleinschmidt said that despite the election results, he believes the nation has turned the corner toward a more tolerant view of the LGBT community.

"This isn't really backlash," he said. "It's really just half of an opinion. If you look at the polling numbers, there's a lot of support for civil unions."

Nelson shared similar views, pointing out Julia Boseman's election as state senator for the traditionally conservative New Hanover County.

"Once you cross that hurdle, you can win anywhere," Nelson said.

"Clearly, we've made it over that hurdle."

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Voters seek comfort in company of others

Chapel Hill News, Nov. 3, 2004

CHAPEL HILL -- Joe Herzenberg walked through the front door of the Orange County Social Club in downtown Carrboro, dwarfed by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer's face looming on the enormous television screen taking up one entire wall.

Herzenberg, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member and a close observer of all things political, stood for a moment and took in the scene. Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, wearing a T-shirt that said, "George W. Bush: You're fired," hurried over from the bar to greet him.

"Hi, Mike," Herzenberg said. "What do you know?"

"I have a good feeling," Nelson said.

"Yes, but what do you KNOW?" Herzenberg asked.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Fright night on Franklin Street

Chapel Hill News, Oct. 27, 2004

Residents have reveled in or put up with the downtown Halloween celebration for years now.

But just when did Franklin Street morph into the largest demon destination in the state?

Though no one can pinpoint the date, most interviewed said downtown Halloween crowds started growing sometime in the 1970s.

"I was sitting in the window of Spanky's on Halloween in 1979," recalls former councilman Joe Herzenberg. "I just noticed it was really not what it used to be. It was really getting to be a big thing."

Monday, October 4, 2004

Attempt to save West House is only getting started

Chapel Hill Herald, Oct. 4, 2004 / Chapel Hill News, Oct. 17, 2004 - Letter to the Editor

West House on campus at UNC-CH, before its August, 2006 demolition.

The West House Coalition reiterates our support for the Arts Common and its programs, that we believe the Common can support those needs without sacrificing West House, and that it seems clear Arts Common architects were never asked to consider incorporating the house into the Common -- an exciting challenge for any firm. Since last January we have heard from numerous folks in all stages of planning and public debate that claim West House was seldom, or only peripherally discussed.

Paul Kapp was hired by UNC after the house's fate was sealed. His recent guest column in The Chapel Hill Herald and comments in The Daily Tar Heel imply that West House preservationists insult Carolina's preservation record. We have publicly praised Carolina's preservation activities, including Mr. Kapp's hiring. Observing the quality restorations of our beautiful historic buildings inspired our group to take up the house's fate. It should be noted, master planners also sought to demolish Smith and Swain Halls until Myrick Howard of Preservation North Carolina insisted that they and West House should be saved. Indeed, the Y-Court, also slated for demolition, was saved by an enormous outcry from students and alumni.

West House garden view

It's important to clarify that West House does not sit on top of any utilities. The house was built in 1935 on private property before any utilities were underground. Utilities are under at least one, if not all, of the myriad Music Building footprints (and despite protestations otherwise, the building's architects confirm no footprint is yet set).

West House represents one-third of Carolina's history with many noted historic associations. During the last two home football games, alone, the Coalition has gathered more than 500 signatures from alumni, students, faculty, employees, and visitors in support of the house. We've only just started.

Joe Herzenberg
Chapel Hill

Demolition of West House, August 17, 2006.

(Editor's note - the efforts of the Save West House Coalition were ultimately defeated by the tear-down-the-past, uncaring, shortsighted agenda of the UNC-CH administration under Chancellor James Moeser.)

Friday, October 1, 2004

’81 killing spurred Durham gay rally, one of N.C.’s 1st

Durham Herald-Sun, Oct. 1, 2004

In April 1981, four sunbathers on the banks of the Little River were attacked by a group who, witnesses said, headed toward them shouting, "We're going to beat some faggots!"

One man, 46-year-old Ronald Antonevich, died three days later.

Joe Herzenberg, who is gay and was a Chapel Hill Town Council member at the time, said he remembers the death vividly.

"It meant that somebody could be killed or badly hurt because somebody thought you were gay," he said.

The attack also enraged Durham's small gay community, prompting "Our Day Out," what Herzenberg recalls as one of North Carolina's earliest gay rallies. The event attracted hundreds of supporters and curious onlookers, and brought a
new civil rights issue into prominence.

Much has changed in the 23 years since Antonevich's fatal beating and the rally that followed. Durham's gay pride festival is now a statewide event that attracts several thousand people. This weekend, PrideFest 2004 celebrates "20 Years of Pride," including the march sparked by the attack and the parades that began a few years later. The activities begin tonight with a "Ninth Street Promenade" and continue Saturday with speeches and a parade on and around Duke's East Campus.

"The climate in Durham is one of the more accepting climates in the state," said Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina, a political action committee working for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. "The state as a whole still is relatively conservative," he said, "and, certainly, the work being done in places like Durham is leading the state forward."

Friday, September 17, 2004

Panel prepares for renaming debate: Different stances to shape future of Airport Road

The Daily Tar Heel, Sept. 17, 2004

Mayor Kevin Foy announced the names of the people who will make up the special committee to consider renaming Airport Road in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.


The idea of renaming the road originally came before the council in January. But after a series of heated public forums, the council decided it could not make the decision without more citizen input.

Monday, the council chose 20 people to give that input.

Joe Herzenberg, a former Town Council member, long-time Chapel Hill resident and historian of the civil rights movement, was appointed as a citizen-at-large.

Herzenberg said the struggle to rename the road pales in comparison to the struggles in Chapel Hill during King's lifetime.

The renaming is a way to compensate for things that should have been accomplished locally while King was alive, Herzenberg said.

"We should have something to honor Dr. King," Herzenberg said, adding that he is willing to listen to those who disagree with him.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Town: Zap ‘defense of marriage’ law in N.C. - Chapel Hill council wants repeal of law banning gay unions

Durham Herald-Sun, April 15, 2004

CHAPEL HILL -- The Town Council voted unanimously Wednesday to ask state legislators to do away with North Carolina's "defense of marriage" law, which bans same-sex marriages.


Councilman Mark Kleinschmidt proposed making the request part of the council's legislative agenda, and he described it Wednesday as a way for the town to say, "Hell yeah, we're about fairness, we're about equality, we're about treating people fairly."

"If that means stepping out and making some noise, then give me the noisemaker," he said.


The proposal is aimed at a law the state Legislature passed in 1996, the same year that Congress passed the national Defense of Marriage Act. The federal law defines marriage as a union between a man and woman and gives states autonomy in deciding whether to recognize same-sex marriages from other states or countries.

The N.C. law bans same-sex unions and says that same-sex marriages performed outside the state are not valid in North Carolina.

Joe Herzenberg, a former council member who is gay, spoke in favor of Kleinschmidt's petition. Herzenberg said he was proud that, back in 1975, town officials protected employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and he hoped the council would vote unanimously about the same-sex marriage request.

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

State might not follow locals' lead

The Daily Tar Heel, April 7, 2004

As the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro headline a fight for same-sex rights in North Carolina, most doubt the rest of the state will join in on what is now a national debate.

"North Carolina is not the most progressive state," said Joe Herzenberg, former Chapel Hill Town Council member and co-founder of Equality North Carolina, an advocacy group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

As the first openly gay elected official in the state, Herzenberg has paid close attention to the state of gay rights in North Carolina for more than a decade.

"I think what they are doing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro is great," Herzenberg said. "At least we are starting somewhere."

Friday, March 19, 2004

Spencer in a different context

Chapel Hill Herald, March 19, 2004 - Letter to the Editor

With respect to Cornelia Phillips Spencer, Chancellor James Moeser suggests that she be judged in the context of the time (i.e., Reconstruction, that period of U.S. history when racial views were most fluid). That's fine. How about going one step further and judging her in the context of her own family?

Samuel Field Phillips, Mrs. Spencer's brother, did such a good job at prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan when he was a federal attorney in Raleigh that President Grant appointed him solicitor general, the second highest position in the Department of Justice. He served for 12 years under four presidents.

As solicitor general he defended civil rights legislation before an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. And then, late in life, Phillips came out of retirement in 1896 to represent Thomas Plessy, a man of color from Louisiana who wanted a better seat on a train. Unfortunately Phillips, Plessy and all of us lost -- in Plessy v. Ferguson.

So when it came to racial matters central to the democratic struggle in the late 19th century, who can deny that Samuel Phillips (and not his sister Cornelia) is the better American hero -- for then and now.

P.S. We should all thank Yonni Chapman for helping us appreciate our past.

Joe Herzenberg
Chapel Hill

Thursday, March 4, 2004

I cannot imagine how anyone thought John Kerry would be more electable than John Edwards

Edwards' Exit: Thanks supporters, commends Kerry, won't say what's next
Charlotte Observer, March 4, 2004

U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the mill-town kid turned millionaire lawyer turned major presidential candidate, ended his bid for the White House with an endorsement for his chief rival, rousing words for his supporters and no hint of his future plans. Edwards stepped aside Wednesday in a carefully choreographed announcement at Raleigh's Broughton High School, which his oldest son and daughter attended.


"I cannot imagine how anyone thought John Kerry would be more electable than John Edwards, but I guess people were concerned about the experience," said Joe Herzenberg, a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council and liberal activist.