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.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The town loses a unique presence

Chapel Hill Herald, Oct. 31, 2007 - Editorial

Everyone knew Joe. Joe knew everyone.

If ever there was a man about town, particularly downtown, Joe Herzenberg was the guy. He lived downtown and, it seemed that every day, he walked through it. He'd chat with the flower ladies, stop at Pepper's Pizza, grab a hamburger at Crook's Corner, talk to everyone as he made his way down Franklin Street.

Herzenberg, who died over the weekend at the age of 66, was in some ways the antithesis of the average Chapel Hillian, whatever that may be.

He was intentionally car-less and walked everywhere. His everyday costume was a combination of New York hipster and backwoods farmer. In the land of the svelte and athletic, he was anything but.

But no one loved Chapel Hill more than he did, no one cared about Chapel Hill and its future more than Joe Herzenberg cared.

Herzenberg will be recalled for being the first openly gay official in the state and one of the first anywhere, during a time when being gay was less accepted than it is now. He will probably most be remembered for his diligent service on the Chapel Hill Town Council beginning in the late 1980s and for how that service ended, as he was forced to resign when it became public that he had not paid his state income taxes for several years.

But the scandal and his resignation did not diminish his love for his adopted hometown or his involvement in our civic affairs. Rather than hide in the corner, he admitted his indiscretions, apologized for them, and stayed involved in our affairs. He served on local boards and mentored young politicians. He continued to work for civil rights and for peace and justice. He continued to be, particularly on Franklin Street, a presence.

A few years ago the Town Council created a committee to study the then-contentious idea of renaming Airport Road for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It appointed officials to the committee as well as Airport Road residents and members of the local branch of the NAACP. It also named to the committee Joe Herzenberg, as a "citizen-at-large."

Yes, indeed.

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