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.

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.

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