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, October 30, 2007

Local leaves personal and political mark

The Daily Tar Heel, Oct. 30, 2007

By: Sara Gregory, Assistant City Editor

Joe Herzenberg sent his friends hundreds of postcards.

The longtime Chapel Hill resident sent the notes from his home and his travels: a photo on one side and on the back, a few funny observations or words of support.

"He's the only person who sent me postcards," said Chapel Hill Town Council member Mark Kleinschmidt, a friend of Herzenberg's. "He would sometimes send postcards with just a simple thought or idea to remind us what was important. It was just this charming way of conveying a message."

Friends said Monday they will miss Herzenberg and his postcards. The civil rights activist and the first openly gay elected official in the Carolinas died about 6 p.m. Sunday at UNC Hospitals. He was 66 years old.

Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris and Margaret Herzenberg, and grew up in New Jersey.

He received a bachelor's degree from Yale University in 1963. After graduating, Herzenberg was one of the nearly 1,000 student volunteers who went to Mississippi to register black voters during Freedom Summer in 1964.

Herzenberg then joined the faculty of Tougaloo College, an historically black university, where he served as chairman of the history department. The Delta Sigma Theta sorority named him an honorary member while he taught at Tougaloo.

"He had fond memories of teaching there," Kleinschmidt said. "He thought of that as one of his great achievements in his life."

Herzenberg came to Chapel Hill as a graduate student in history at UNC.

In 1979, he led his first campaign for Chapel Hill Town Council and lost. Herzenberg was appointed to the seat vacated mid-term by Gerry Cohen, but failed to win re-election in 1981. He lost a third attempt for the council in 1983.

Friends said they will remember his determination to fight for progressive issues.

"He really set the bar for infusing our public policy decisions with progressive values and his commitment to civil rights and fairness and equality," Kleinschmidt said. "He found a role for those decisions in all that the town does."

Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson managed Herzenberg's first successful attempt in 1987.

Nelson, who was the first openly gay elected Mayor of Carrboro before serving on the board of commissioners, was a student when he campaigned with Herzenberg.

Nelson met Herzenberg in 1983 at the Henderson Street Bar and said it was exciting to be involved with the successful campaign.

"Joe and our volunteers knocked on virtually every door in Chapel Hill," Nelson said. "We put together an extraordinary grassroots effort."

On the council, Herzenberg was responsible for the creation of the town's greenway system and the enactment of the tree protection ordinance.

"You look around Chapel Hill and you see his fingerprints on anything that's worth anything here," Kleinschmidt said.

He also was a mentor to many UNC students who later went on to elected offices in Orange County. Kleinschmidt, Nelson and Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton were supported by Herzenberg when they ran for office.

"I remember how excited he was whenever I told him I wanted to pursue getting a seat on the council," Kleinschmidt said. "He taught me not just how to fight for the things I cared about, but also how to be effective with the people I was serving."

Chilton was a student when he first ran for a spot on the Chapel Hill Town Council. He and Herzenberg both ran in 1991, and Chilton said Herzenberg became a key adviser.

"Joe was a real important figure in Chapel Hill politics," Chilton said. "It seemed kind of strange, kind of unusual having someone like that supporting me."

Chilton said he learned a lot working with Herzenberg after they both were elected - Herzenberg with the highest vote total ever in a council race up to that time.

"Joe was somebody who was not afraid to stand up for the things that he believed in even if his point of view might be unpopular," Chilton said. "Joe and I were at the losing end of a couple of votes together over the years."

The two were the sole dissenting votes when the council decided to establish new policies allowing public housing apartments to be searched for drugs.

"We were quite vilified for that," Chilton said, who keeps a copy of an editorial cartoon that shows the two being burned at the stake together.

Herzenberg resigned from the council in 1993, but continued to remain active in Chapel Hill, serving on several town boards, including the committee that worked to rename Airport Road in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

He was a longtime Democratic Party supporter, and served as a precinct captain for many years. On Election Days, Herzenberg would go around in the afternoon to convince people to vote.

"He and others would go knocking on doors and all but drag them to the polls," Kleinschmidt said. "He didn't care if they were going to vote for him or not. At the end of the day, he appreciated people participating whether they agreed with him or not."

The upcoming municipal elections mark the 20th anniversary of Herzenberg's election. Equality NC, which Herzenberg helped found, planned to honor him at its Equality Conference and Gala Saturday.

Nelson now will share a personal remembrance during the gala.

Herzenberg is survived by his brother Bobby; his sister-in-law, Debbie; his nephew, Michael; and his niece, Sarah. He was preceded in death by his brother David.

A memorial service is being planned and likely will occur in the coming weeks. Friends and family have asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Interfaith Alliance or Equality NC PAC.

Herzenberg's friends have taken to calling him an unofficial mayor of Franklin Street, recognizing the time he spent downtown meeting new and old friends.

And, in typical fashion, Chilton said Herzenberg reached out to everyone downtown.

"It wasn't just all the business owners and patrons he was friends with," Chilton said. "Joe knew all of the panhandlers by name. He really knew everyone."

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