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.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

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.

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