When news of the death of J. Whyatt “Jerry” Mondesire circulated Sunday evening, there was open weeping and, for many, repressed joy. You see, to know Mondesire was to know one thing: It’s complicated, as was he. He sharply divided Philadelphians into two camps: those who loved him and those who hated him. He was a rabble-rouser, confident to the point of cocky. He was intelligent and media-savvy enough to often make the local news weekly—and the national news frequently. He was a profane, menacing enforcer. A good-looking man who knew he looked good, Mondesire often accentuated his wardrobe with wide Stetson hats and detailed cowboy boots, yet somehow did not look out of place in the decidedly non-western environment of Philadelphia. He embraced a machismo-riddled (often chauvinistic) stance while flashing a charming smile.
The New York native was born in Harlem to working-class parents. His mother, Winnifred Taylor Mondesire, was a South Carolinian who focused on education, while his Carribean-born father, Jerome Alexis Mondesire was deeply influenced by the Black Nationalist teachings of Marcus Garvey, the dynamic Jamaican orator who advanced a Pan-African philosophy that came to be known as Garveyism. By the time Mondesire graduated from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens in 1968, where he was a member of the NAACP High School Youth Council, the seeds of radical activism had been sowed. His father wanted him to be an attorney, but Mondesire chose otherwise and attended City College of New York, where he studied journalism and was a student activist and volunteer with SNCC.
As a young reporter, Mondesire covered the Black October killings of Maryland state Sen. James Turk Scott and “Pee Wee” Matthews for the Baltimore Sun in 1973, and that same year, joined his fellow African-American news professionals to become a founding member of the Association of Black Journalists in Philadelphia, the charter chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. In 1974, he covered Mayor Frank Rizzo’s strip-searching of the Black Panthers for the Philadelphia Inquirer and rose up in its ranks, eventually becoming assistant city desk editor.
It was when Mondesire—often called Mondo for short—was selected to work as chief of staff for Rep. William H. Gray’s successful congressional campaign that his reputation for antagonism started taking root. While serving Rep. Gray, Mondesire influenced and shaped policy, but his strong-arm tactics on behalf of the congressman were legendary enough for his former colleague, the late Daily News columnist Chuck Stone, to describe him as a “polyestered thug.” Mondesire responded by saying he wore “only natural fabrics.”
In 1992, after Rep. Gray retired, Mondesire would take on duel roles as a media mogul and civil rights leader. He published his own weekly paper, the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, with news targeting Philly’s Black community. On local cable, he hosted FreedomQuest, a political public affairs show, and he was an in-demand guest on various radio and news programs. But Mondesire’s political acumen was put to the test when he was elected president of Philadelphia’s NAACP chapter, where he increased its membership to over 5,000.
In 2000, former powerhouse radio talk show host Mary Mason told the Baltimore Sun of Mondesire: “Jerry is a screamer and a talker … He’s very pushy. He’s all those things most people wouldn’t want to be around, but he’s a damned good leader of the NAACP, and he’s got some of these white people walking around on their tippy toes. When they hear his name, they stand up.” Indeed, Mondesire got results. His successes at the NAACP include working to overturn Pennsylvania’s ex-felon disenfranchisement law in 1999 and increasing the branch’s youth scholarship program.
However, after two decades of leadership, his accomplishments were sullied when accusations of financial mismanagement surfaced. The website AxisPhilly.org first reported the controversy when three NAACP board members accused Mondesire of depositing $10,500 intended for the organization in the bank account of the Next Generation Community Development Corp., an organization founded by Mondesire and others in 1999. At the time, the Philly NAACP headquarters was without heat.
Eventually, the national NAACP audited the books, took over the chapter and fired him in 2013. His accusers said he ruled by intimidation. Mondesire called them “a gang of backstabbers.”
For more than a quarter-century, Jerry Mondesire influenced the Philadelphia media and activism landscape, his presence as looming and finite as the PECO building. Mondo may be gone, but—beloved or reviled—he certainly will not be forgotten.
J. Whyatt Mondesire’s viewing is slated for Tues., Oct. 13, 4 -8pm. Savin Funeral Home, 802 N. 12th St. Repass: Champagne’s Lounge & Cafe, 21 E. Chelten Ave., 9pm. His celebration of life is Wed., Oct. 14, 11am. Bright Hope Baptist Church, 1601 N. 12th St. Repass at Bright Hope after the service.