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, 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

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