Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

My photo
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.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Franklin Street's unofficial mayor remembered

Chapel Hill Herald, Nov. 16, 2007


CHAPEL HILL -- His friends remembered him as courageous, cranky and caring, a world traveler who always returned to his favorite spot on Franklin Street, a postcard-sender, a movie-lover, a book-giver and a patriot.

Joe Herzenberg, who died from problems related to diabetes at the age of 66 on Oct. 28, was remembered during a memorial service Thursday at the Chapel Hill Kehillah. About 175 people, including state senators, mayors, councilmen, aldermen, activists and old and new friends attended the morning service.

Although publicly Mr. Herzenberg was known as the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina -- winning his race for Chapel Hill Town Council in 1987 -- and was admired for leading the way and opening doors for other young politicians, both gay and straight, to many he was also a dear friend.

State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, who worked with him on many Democratic party events and issues, told of going to the movies with him for years and years, and then having dinner together afterward at Margaret's Cantina. "If I was reading a newspaper article late at night, I could call him at midnight to talk about it and know Joe would be up," Kinnaird said.

Traveling the world

Mr. Herzenberg, who sometimes sat in front of Pepper's Pizza with his trademark floppy hat and was known as the mayor of Franklin Street, had traveled throughout the nation and the world, including trips to Antarctica and Africa during the last years of his life.

His best friend, Kathie Young, remembered sleeping in a tent in Africa as the rain poured down. Mr. Herzenberg wrote in his journal how nice it was to sleep with the sound of the rain on the tent, "and how he got a good night's sleep because he couldn't hear Kathie snoring," she said with a laugh.

On his trips he studied the history, the culture and the country, said his friend Jonathan Courtland. "What he learned really helped inform his idea on how he could better help his community," Courtland said.

He met his goal of visiting all 50 states, and when he traveled he sent his friends postcards with little notes on them. "I'd love to see if we would all stack our postcards up how big the stack would be," Courtland said.

Mr. Herzenberg, described as a voracious reader, also was known for giving books away. Sometimes a friend would open the front door in the morning to find Mr. Herzenberg had left a book on the doorstep, or a friend's child would receive a book as a gift when Mr. Herzenberg stopped by for a visit.

Mr. Herzenberg, described as a patriot who loved the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, loved gathering with his friends, listening to Mozart and operas and talking about politics.

Leonard Rogoff, the founder of the Chapel Hill Kahillah, summarized Mr. Herzenberg's Jewish philosophy. "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat."

Memorial collage at Margaret's Cantina after Joe's service. Photo by Ruby Sinreich.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

We were family

Tribute by Kathie Young at Joe's memorial service in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15, 2007

Joe and I were best friends for about 30 years. We were family. All of you are aware of the various contributions Joe made to our community and society so I am not going to talk about any of them.

We traveled to Alaska and Africa together during his last years. We talked on the phone several times a day. Wednesday nights we had dinner together followed by grocery shopping. When he felt up to it after shopping I would leave him at Cafe Driade and Mark K. would give him a ride home.

As best friends we shared each others' joys and sadness. I am privileged to have been able to help Joe enjoy a more comfortable life for the past year. All of the time I spent with him will forever be with me.

Once several years ago Joe asked me to go to the movies to see Daniel Wallace’s “The Big Fish.” I asked what it was about. Joe said, “It’s about the kind of funeral I want.” I was surprised as the movie began because I didn’t understand what Joe meant. Midway through the movie I understood and both Joe and I cried like “girls” till the end. Those tears were wonderful tears of love, joy and understanding.

I left the theater knowing that Joe wanted me to be the person piecing together the stories he had gathered over the years. And I, too, like Will Bloom, began to understand Joe’s great feats and his great failings. I am so happy Joe let me carry him into the water.

I want to thank my husband, Roy, for being so understanding of my absences and my two sons, Fred and David for offering me so much strength and support when I needed it.

I will also miss Joe and am so happy that he was such a huge part of our lives.

Joe in Africa, 2006.

Friends Remember Joe

Tributes from Shirley Dreschel and Rep. Verla Insko, as read by Kathie Young at Joe's memorial service in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15, 2007

"These won't be new words heard today about Joe...kind, insatiably interested in subjects he wanted to know about, look-you-in-the-eye caring, loyal, trusting, lived a life marked by the spirit of adventure, inspired questioning, sweet...and there I want to pause and share that three days before Joe died, I received a box of 'Shirley' tulips from him. We had only days before shared in the Harris Teeter parking lot, (accompanied by Bev Kowalec), a plan for him to visit our farm and see our gardens in the spring. Joe had sent me three such boxes in the past. He is, and will be, a very real part of me. In each tulip face I will see his sweet, jovial, light-up-the-world smile and will be encouraged to reflect it in the world. Thank you Joe."

Shirley Dreschel

"I don't have anything profound to say. Joe was just such a constant presence in local Democratic politics and a dependable and wise counselor for me that my political world seems out of balance without him. For me, he provided some kind of solid link with what is right about the Chapel Hill/Carrboro community. I didn't ever see a chink in his armor, and I disagreed with those who did. I just wanted to be with other people who had the same kind of experience with him.

I'll be thinking about you all and Joe on Thursday."

N.C. Rep. Verla Insko

Joe's passion for life

Tribute by Jonathan Courtland at Joe's memorial service in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15, 2007

Different people in different places have written of Joe's myriad of social works. Obviously these need to be remembered; they were his greatest passion. But they weren't his only one. I loved Joe's passion for life - his love of people of all stripes, of movies (what great reviews!), of opera, Mozart, Vermeer, fine food (of course not furry creatures - he loved them as well), good tea, of travel all over the world and much more.

It's nice to recount some of these more personal things to each other. Also, because of his nature, we are all having to help fill in the blanks. I think I can help on a couple things. As for his Judaism, I believe Joe was bar mitzvahed at 13. This is classic Joe - I don't think his father practiced his religion, but Joe, after having read about many different faiths, decided he wanted to be a practicing Jew. As a teenager, Joe was often called to the synagogue to help make a minion (10 adult Jews needed for God to hear their prayers). I do think his faith became more important to him over the last few years.

Joe didn't quite get to all the Vermeers - I believe there were a couple in Germany and another somewhere else in Europe that he missed. (Though if he did see all the ones on public display he planned on knocking on the door of the woman who owns the one not publicly shown - I think a widow of a Johnson & Johnson heir in NJ - I always liked the mental image I have of this possible encounter).

He decided he wanted to concentrate his last travels elsewhere. He did make it to all fifty states. The last couple were within the last few years. One of my favorite Joe postcards was from his last state (Missouri?) - it said only "How about the territories?".

Concerning his papers, Joe did mention to me a number of times over the last few years that he wondered if Wilson Library would be interested. He wrote in his journal daily from the day Stalin died (1956?) until he fell ill a couple years ago. I, for one, would certainly be interested in reading what he wrote. I sure do miss him.

Remembering Joe

John Dittmer's tribute as read by Gerry Cohen at Joe's memorial service in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15, 2007

Joe Herzenberg and I first met 40 years ago, in Mississippi. I had applied for a job in the history department at historically black Tougaloo College. Joe was the chair of the department. He was also the director of the Freshman Social Science Seminar, an experimental program funded by the Ford Foundation; a faculty leader, working to initiate much-needed curriculum reform; and a civil rights activist, who had been jailed after a demonstration in Canton, a mean, racist town twenty miles to the north. Joe was 25 years old. When I came down for a job interview, Joe was not terribly impressed with me, and had his own candidate for the job. Fortunately for me, Joe was overruled by the college president, and I was hired. (Six weeks later the Ku Klux Klan bombed the campus home of the academic dean. He lit out for the territory, and I was appointed dean. So for the next two years I was Joe’s “boss,” a fitting turn of events, as I was always quick to remind him!)

For those of us who taught at Tougaloo in the late 1960s, this was a memorable time. My wife Ellen and I became good friends with Joe and the other young professors (the average age of the faculty in our Social Science Division was 26). The civil rights movement was winding down, and black power was ascendant. Although the college now had a black president, Tougaloo’s faculty was still overwhelmingly white, and the students were demanding more black faculty and academic content. They turned their wrath on the Freshman Social Science Seminar, and Joe and I watched while they fed a bonfire with copies of their next assigned reading, Division Street America, written by Studs Terkel, whom they knew only as a “white man.” (Two years later, when Studs came to the college, and was walking across the campus, he spoke glowingly of the Tougaloo student body. Joe and I did not have the heart to tell him that he was standing on the very spot where his book was burned!)

Racist violence was still a reality in Mississippi in the late 1960s. One of my favorite “Joe stories” occurred when several of us white faculty went downtown one evening to see a movie. When we walked out after the showing there was a disturbance in the lobby. It seems that a white exchange student at Tougaloo and his black date, there for the second show, were being harassed by what looked like the makings of a white mob. After shouting the usual epithets, they warned him that they would be waiting for him after the movie ended. As faculty, we knew we had to do something, so we retired to our favorite black bar to plot strategy. There we decided that two of us would wait inside in the lobby, then whisk away the couple into a car (driven by my wife), parked in front of the theater with the motor running. Joe was to be the lookout. When we arrived back at the theater shortly before midnight everyone took their assigned positions. The street was totally deserted. And there, across from the theater, was our lookout, Professor Herzenberg, standing under a streetlight, pretending to be absorbed in a newspaper. It was a scene right out of a “B” movie, and we all cracked up, despite the imminent danger facing us. The movie ended, the couple came out, there was no white mob, and we all repaired back to the bar to recount our heroic deeds.

Joe was jailed during civil rights protests in 1964, but this gag photo was taken at the last ever segregated (“colored”) county fair in Jackson, Mississippi, 1965.

Joe left Tougaloo in 1969 (I believe), having gotten a grant to enroll at UNC to work on his doctorate. Like most Tougaloo faculty, he had come to the school fresh from completing an M.A. Joe was planning on returning to Tougaloo, but one thing led to another, and he stayed in Chapel Hill. Several factors accounted for his decision not to return to Tougaloo. The “end” of the activist phase of the civil rights movement and the departure of several of his close friends influenced his decision. There was also his increasing interest in the career of Frank Graham (his dissertation subject), and his love affair with Chapel Hill. And we noticed that Joe was becoming more involved in politics, not as a subject for abstract discussion but as a participant.

In the summer of 1972 the Democratic National Convention was being held in Miami. The Mississippi Loyalist Democrats had booked a bunch of rooms at the convention hotel, and was not able to fill them. They looked for volunteers, and I asked Joe, then at Chapel Hill, if he wanted to go. The two of us went to Miami, and spent three long days and nights observing events. On Friday night the session dragged on and on. It was clear that George McGovern was to be the Party’s nominee, but his enemies were being obstructive. Finally, at five in the morning, with most of Mississippi’s delegates and alternates having left the building, Joe and I got to go to the floor as credentialed delegates, where we voted on a series of amendments the McGovern people did not want to bring up in prime time. I remember our walking out of the convention hall as the sun was rising, and Joe was not weary, but instead exhilarated by the experience. If he was not already hooked on a political career before that convention, he certainly was from that early morning on.

We stayed good friends with Joe down through his Chapel Hill years (a story better told by his local friends). Over the past couple of years I have had research to do at Wilson Library, and each time I was in town Joe and I would spend time together at his favorite local haunts. And then he almost died. His recovery was miraculous, and he told all of us how blessed he was and that now he was going to take care of himself. So it was disheartening to come to see Joe in his last year, sitting in his pajamas, barely able to move. His health was deteriorating rapidly, and he may well have decided there was nothing he could do about it. Kathie Young’s e-mail on that last day stated that Joe had given instructions not to receive life support at the hospital. When she got back to us later to say that Joe had died at 6:15, Ellen said “Good for him.” Joe was now at peace.

I’m writing this now because I will not be able to come to Chapel Hill for Joe’s memorial service, and I wanted to add my “Tougaloo tribute” to those many moving remembrances from his North Carolina friends. Joe touched our lives, and improved them. And we’ll keep hearing his booming voice and hearty laugh, coming from under that outrageous floppy hat, for as long as we have memory.

John Dittmer
DePauw University, Indiana

Joe on election night at Open Eye Cafe in Carrboro, 2005.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No one like Joe

I can't remember when Joe and I first met but it had to be a long time ago - in those fine days when he was serving for the first time on the Town Council and when gays boys dared to walk down the street holding hands and even kissing - even if only occasionally - in public - before the Reagan years made the street less friendly.

It's not easy being a gay poet in North Carolina - and it's not just because of the poetry establishment, but also because the gay community can sometime ignore poetry as gingerly as the rest of society. Joe was always interested.

Running into Joe on the street was pleasurable always, enlightening frequently.

When we ran into each other he would ask what I was writing and what I was thinking. Joe never hesitated, either, to open his purse and contribute financially to projects I was working on, or to offer to buy my works - although because I felt I owed him so much I would never let him buy. As with everyone else, he wanted to talk movies too, and that was always a source of debate, good cheer, dismay, and excitement. I was surprised and delighted when a framed photograph of giraffes appeared in the mail one day after Joe's trip to Africa.

Joe also stepped forward, when few others did, after I started the Save West House Coalition. He wrote letters, he talked, he encouraged. I'll never forget his generosity then - nor how we both lamented the passing of many charms of Chapel Hill and wondered why progress had to mean destruction for some of the things we loved. We agreed it didn't have to.

When I moved to Chapel Hill in 1975 the town had lots of eccentrics. Joe wasn't one then, but I was glad he became one. He was one of the last. Luckily there are still a few around, but no one like Joe. My partner, Stanley Finch, and I will miss him. Love you Joe!

Jeffery Beam
UNC-Chapel Hill

Joe on the move in Africa, 2006.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Service Thursday for Herzenberg

New Jersey Herald, Nov. 12, 2007


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Civil rights activist and former Franklin resident Joseph Herzenberg will be honored with simultaneous memorial services in Chapel Hill and at F. John Ramsey Funeral Home in Franklin on Thursday at 10:30 a.m.

A former history professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., Herzenberg died Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007, due to complications from diabetes. He was 66. After relocating to Chapel Hill in the 1970s, he became the first openly gay elected official in the state when he won a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1987.

"A lot of people think of Chapel Hill as being this liberal bastion, but it was a fight," explained Herzenberg's friend and current Town Council member Mark Kleinschmidt, noting that Herzenberg had been temporarily appointed to the council in 1979, but lost his bids for reelection in 1981 and 1983. After barely winning the last open seat in 1987, Herzenberg went on to become a popular public figure throughout Chapel Hill.

"It's not that he just knew all the businessmen on (Chapel Hill center) Franklin Street, he knew all the homeless guys by name," said Mark Chilton, mayor of Carrboro, N.C., and former Chapel Hill Town Council member. "He saw all those different people as individuals to be represented. He had a great sense of humor, and I think for a lot of folks from Chapel Hill, he's a figure that people very much associate with the town."

Throughout his years on the council, Herzenberg fought to fund the town library system, register the downtown area as a historic district, and preserve town parks with a greenway system of bicycle paths and walking trails connecting them all.

"He really set the bar for environmental protection and preserving open space, as well as using his seat on the council as a place to speak about equality and justice issues," said Kleinschmidt, adding that these issues made Herzenberg the No. 1 vote-getter upon his re-election in 1991.

"He was extremely popular, becoming himself part of the heart of Chapel Hill. He really left this (town) a better place."

Though he had traveled all over the world, Chilton said, "Joe was very proud of being from New Jersey, particularly from that northwestern area. He would always scold people who had anything negative to say about New Jersey, and point out that most folks who said such things had never been to the parts of New Jersey that were really beautiful."

Herzenberg is survived by his brother, Robert Herzenberg; sister-in-law, Deborrah Herzenberg DiMatteo; nephew, Michael; and niece, Sarah. He was predeceased by a brother, David C. Herzenberg, who was a prominent Sussex County attorney who once headed up the Somerset-Sussex Legal Services and did much pro bono work on behalf of the needy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

My friend, Joe Herzenberg

Since late October, I'll come upon things and subconsciously think how much fun it would be to discuss them with Joe. He was a great friend for 55 years, and I miss him.

After I learned he'd died, I wrote a brief summary of how I remembered Joe, since pretty much everything online then was about after he'd graduated from college.

My friend, Joe Herzenberg, died on Sunday, October 28, in Chapel Hill. I was shocked and saddened to learn of his death, but not overwhelmingly surprised. I had visited Joe in Chapel Hill in April and was disappointed to find his health had deteriorated significantly since I last visited him a few years ago. If you “googled” his name shortly after his death, there were tens of thousands of items retrieved—obituaries, short biographies, and personal reflections—but in almost every case, these begin at the time Joe left graduate school at Yale or when he arrived in Chapel Hill. There was almost nothing about the first 25 or 30 years of his life. Those of us who lived in Franklin, NJ, and went to school with Joe had the good fortune of knowing this very unique and wonderful person during that time, and many long-term friendships resulted.

A week or so before I visited Joe in North Carolina earlier this year, he called to tell me he’d been having some problems with his legs and was undergoing some treatments. Because of this, he said, he was having trouble getting around. He said he definitely wanted to go out to eat when I got there, but that he’d be just a bit slower. He did indeed have serious mobility problems when I was there, but I’m afraid there were other health problems he didn’t want to talk about. Getting across a room was a chore, and getting him to and from a local restaurant for lunch was very difficult.

During our entire visit, he held onto his cell phone, which rang constantly. He’d look at the name or number—and generally it was a local politician or a friend or some higher-up in the Democratic party—and Joe would say it could wait until later. Then, when we arrived at the restaurant and were trying to get him out of the car, his walker positioned, etc., his phone rang again. This time he looked at the phone and said that this was very important, and he had to take the call. For all his urgency, it could have been a congressman, a senator, an ambassador, whatever. It turned out it was his niece in New Jersey calling to tell him about colleges, or options she had—something like that. Joe was totally and genuinely absorbed in the call, and would have continued talking forever. That, I think, speaks to his loyalty and his priorities. He was extraordinarily loyal to his family and his friends, and always put them above anything else in his life.

Joe did a lot of work for progressive issues he supported, including championing the rights of minorities, racial injustice, affordable housing and the environment. He was enthusiastic, tenacious and relentless in things he believed in and in recruiting others to his cause. If you ever gave Joe a “maybe” or “I’ll think about it,” you were finished, because he’d continue to hammer on you until you came around. Joe could be stubborn in his pursuit of what he believed in. He was a very tolerant person and had basic principles that pretty much dictated what he did with his life.

I first met Joe when I was 11 years old and we were classmates in 7th grade. We were good friends through Junior High and High School. After high school, we communicated primarily through letters. Joe was a prolific letter writer. He probably wrote about every one or two weeks and somewhere I still have stacks of those letters, mostly handwritten, and usually stuffed with newspaper clippings from the New York Times or the New Jersey Herald. He was always reading something and was a very intelligent person.

After he moved to Chapel Hill, he changed from letters to postcards, usually with one thing he wanted to communicate or often a question. Ignoring the question just got you another postcard. I told Joe late last year I’d come down for a visit “sometime soon,” but had no idea when. Between then and the time in March when we decided on a date, I got at least four postcards from Joe, asking when I was coming—the last asking “When, if ever, are you coming?” You would have thought with computers, the Internet and especially e-mail, Joe would have been a logical candidate, but he wasn’t. He never much liked e-mail or computers, preferring postcards, phone calls, and especially talking face-to-face with people. Also, for many years, he never had a television. After he got one (relatively recently), he decided it actually did have some merit.

Last year I got a postcard from Joe saying that he was sending me one of the most important documents of the 1950s. The next week I got another, telling me to be on the lookout for something that was “worth its weight in gold.” Finally I received an envelope with a very small (maybe 3” x 2”) piece of yellowed paper. The writing was in pencil, and read, “Please excuse Joe and Roy from class to do Spotlight [our school newspaper] work,” and it was signed by Mr. Weeks, our school newspaper advisor. I guess Joe decided I needed this, but really it was an amazing thing to have when we were seniors. You could just show this to a teacher and get excused from class. Joe would often surprise me with unusual and unexpected things. He had an excellent sense of humor and was full of life and laughter. He had a mischievous grin and genuinely enjoyed a good gossip session or just reminiscing about growing up in Franklin.

Finally, I believe the thing I’ll most remember about Joe is his kindness. Joe was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known, and he was that way his entire life. Back in Franklin Junior and Senior High, when new students joined us from other schools, Joe was one of the first people to meet them, talk to them and make them feel welcome. I heard from a friend recently who said that when she came to Franklin High, Joe was one of the first people who reached out to her, welcomed her, and got her involved in some school activities. It was very important to her then, and she never forgot it.

These are some of the things I’ll remember about Joe: his enthusiasm, his loyalty, his tenacity, his tolerance, his intellect, his stories, his principles, his sense of humor, and his kindness. Joe worked hard to make the world a friendlier and more peaceful place. Personally, I’ll miss him very much, and I know a lot of others will also.

Roy Timmer
Hockessin, DE

Joe, hiding out in Franklin, NJ, 1940's

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Oral history interviews featuring Joe

The Latest Outrage, Nov. 6, 2007

Two oral histories featuring Joe are available for listening online from Documenting the American South, a project of UNC-CH's Southern Oral History Program.

The first is from November 22, 1976 (the 13th anniversary of JFK's assassination), and features Joe interviewing Anne Queen, legendary former director of the Campus Y at UNC-CH in the 1950s and 60s. They discuss the history of radical politics in the South and Chapel Hill during those years, activism in the 70s amidst the "growing apathy of students on university campuses," and hopes for the future following Jimmy Carter's election in 1976.

The second is an interview with Joe taped almost a decade later, on November 18, 1985. He is identified as a "Chapel Hill politico," and explains his support for the controversial issue of the day, OWASA's construction of Cane Creek Reservoir. Joe also comments on the local political scene, and mixes in helpings of his own political philosophies, like this gem:

"To be American means having to deal with change. That is what is so strikingly obvious to me about what American History is all about. We have been, for more than two centuries now, a very dynamic country where things are always changing. It's difficult for people to deal with that and accept that, even though we have a tradition for it."

Joe outside Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, 1990

The endnotes of this particular interview's transcript are labeled "About Joe Herzenberg, Interviewee." They were clearly written by Joe himself, and made me feel like I'd discovered one of his final, hidden jokes when I found them:

Joseph Herzenberg, a native of Franklin, New Jersey was born in 1941, professes a Master's Degree in European History from Yale University. Tired of being a student, and following the removal of a kidney, he “was tired and needed a rest” so he undertook a teaching position at Tougaloo [Mississippi] College where upon he came to realize that he was “never [more] tired in my life. It was exhausting!” He has been a resident of Chapel Hill since 1969, currently sharing his abode with one “Harriet Levy” who was reluctant (by omission) to espouse the interviewee's political alignment—democrat, “both kinds”. Asked to wrap up his feelings about this issue in nutshell, Herzenberg magnanimously responded, “I'm sorry if people have to suffer sometimes, particularly if they're straight.”

UPDATE 12/12 - Two additional oral history interviews with Joe are archived for listening as part of the Southern Oral History Program at the Southern Historical Collection Manuscripts Department in Wilson Libary, UNC-Chapel Hill. One from 1995, conducted by current SOHP special projects coordinator Joseph Mosnier, is nearly four hours in length, and was Joe's most in-depth, wide ranging recorded conversation about his life and times.

There is no transcript of this interview, but the interviewer's field notes, a handwritten life history drawn up by Joe, and a tape log that summarizes in detail the topics covered are all on file and available for viewing online.

The other interview, from 2000, was conducted by Chris McGinnis as part of a 2000-2002 oral history project called Listening for a Change: History of Gay Men and Transgender People in the South. The entire interview has been digitized, indexed, and can be accessed online. A complete 43-page transcript is also available online.

UPDATE 12/18 - Besides his previously mentioned interview with Anne Queen, Joe also recorded several other oral history interviews with N.C. political figures as part of his research into the life of Frank Porter Graham.

They included the Rev. Charles M. Jones (who was a key figure in Chapel Hill’s desegregation movement during 1963-64), former Graham confidant Charles Phillips Russell, noted Southern liberal and N&O editor Jonathan Daniels, and oral history pioneer William Terry Couch, who was Director of the UNC Press from 1932-45 and also served as Southern Regional Director of the Federal Writer's Project (FWP).

"At least as far back as the thirties, and certainly continuing into the early fifties, there was a very strong notion throughout the region that Chapel Hill is this liberal island...but from my point of view, if that were so, it's difficult to understand how there was such a violent reaction to the Freedom Riders in 1947. That incident in Chapel Hill was the most violent incident of their journey...and then the nature of resistance to integration in Chapel Hill took some rather violent forms."

- Joe, conversation with Rev. Charles M. Jones during oral history interview, Nov. 8, 1976

Historian John Herbert Roper cites an interview he and Joe jointly conducted with North Carolina icon Paul Green in the notes for his 2003 biography, Paul Green: Playwright of the Real South, but the interview is not cataloged along with other oral histories archived in the Southern Historical Collection.

- Erik Ose

Sunday, November 4, 2007

We'll not see his like again

Dave Hart, Chapel Hill News, Nov. 4, 2007 - Editorial

We lost one of the very best of us when Joe Herzenberg passed away last week.

Joe and Chapel Hill were so much a part of each other that it's difficult to imagine the town without him. Not least because, if not for him, Chapel Hill wouldn't be the Chapel Hill we know.

He changed this place, not only through his remarkable political career, but through his vast store of knowledge, his garrulous personality, and his ubiquitous presence. He fully deserved his unofficial title, mayor of Franklin Street, and his unwavering commitment to the fundamental but all too frequently forgotten proposition that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated that way, with justice and compassion.

His groundbreaking political career is well known around here. He participated in the Freedom Summer voter registration efforts in Mississippi in 1963 and came here in the early 1970s to go to graduate school. He immediately immersed himself in local and state politics, culture and history, and when he was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1987 he became the first openly gay elected official in the state, and probably in the South. He opened the door for others to follow. He was a champion not only of gay rights, but of civil rights in general, social justice, environmental protection and other issues.

In a town with a long history of activism, he's right up there at the top. He managed somehow to be at once a giant of a man and just Joe.

And when many of us think of him, we don't think of him speechifying or voting at the council table. We think of him where we so often saw him, on the Franklin Street he loved and knew so well, wearing his trademark floppy hat, talking to everyone.

Matt Stiegler, Joe, and Fred Young at Joe's Stonewall party, 2004.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Obituary - Joseph A. Herzenberg

The Carrboro Citizen, Nov. 1, 2007

Joe Herzenberg — the first openly gay elected official in the American South, an ardent defender of civil rights and the environment, and the unofficial Mayor of Franklin Street — died on October 28, 2007 at UNC Hospital. He was 66 years old.

Joe 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 participate in voter registration for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically-black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. A very popular instructor, Joe was named an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. During this time, Joe was briefly married.

Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in the early 1970s to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, immediately immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for Chapel Hill town council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the council that year to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the council, becoming the South’s first openly gay elected official. He was re-elected in 1991 with the highest vote tally in the four seat race (and, up to that time, the highest vote total ever in a Town Council race), and served until 1993. As a council member, Joe was responsible for creation of the Chapel Hill greenway system and enactment of the town’s tree protection ordinance.

Joe remained active in civic and political activities. He was a founding board member of Pride PAC, a statewide lesbian and gay political action committee now known as Equality NC. He also served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Fund for Southern Communities. He served as chair of the local greenways commission, the tree commission, and the libraries bond task force, and served on several other local boards. Joe also organized Chapel Hill’s annual Bill of Rights Day celebration.

Throughout his time in Chapel Hill, Joe was an ardent Democratic Party supporter, serving as longtime chair of his precinct. His party activism brought him brief notoriety in 1984, when Senator Jesse Helms angrily raged at his opponent Jim Hunt during a live televised debate “You’re supported by people like Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown!” – a moment that Joe was forever after proud of. Joe received a Citizen’s Award from the Independent newsweekly in 1984, the first year that award was given.

Joe was an enthusiastic traveler who visited all seven continents and all 50 states. He also loved art and music. He was a member of Chapel Hill Kehillah.

Joe is survived by his brother Bobby, his sister-in-law Debbie, his nephew Michael, and his niece Sarah. He was pre-deceased by his brother David.

In lieu of flowers, well-wishers are asked to make contributions in his name to Equality NC,, or the Inter-faith Council for Social Services,

Joe visiting the Netherlands, 1998.