Remembering Philadelphia NAACP Leader Jerry Mondesire

Booker: At his peak, Mondesire presided over 45 NAACP branches with nearly 15,000 members.

President of the Pennsylvania NAACP, Jerome Mondesire, left addresses the media at a news conference announcing Federal Lawsuit against the Lebanon, Pa School District Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011 in Lebanon, Pa. At right is attorney Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia which is also named in the suit. (AP Photos/Bradley C Bower)

Jerry Mondesire | Photo by Bradley C. Bower/AP

When the NAACP brought its 106th Annual Convention to Philadelphia this summer, the cloud of controversy regarding the regional chapter was ever-present — and reluctantly discussed. For 17 years, J. Whyatt “Jerry” Mondesire served as president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, and his removal months earlier from the position for alleged financial impropriety presented a public relations problem for the civil rights organization. When Mondesire died six days shy of his 66th birthday, questions of his impact on the future of Philadelphia’s community abounded.

For the national NAACP, despite the problem at hand, the organization forged ahead with its agenda. The NAACP is accustomed to tackling challenges others may run from, and the long-lived Philadelphia branch of the NAACP — founded in 1912 — is equally as skilled at handling disputations. In the late 20th century, the organization dealt with several charismatic yet controversial leaders, most notably the late City Councilman Cecil B. Moore. Although Moore is best remembered for leading the successful picket to desegregate Girard College, he also served as president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP from 1963 to 1967, with its membership leaping from 7,000 one year before he started to more than 50,000 a few years afterward.

A lifelong activist, Mondesire was influenced as a child by the Pan-African philosophy of Marcus Garvey, whose Black nationalist movement impacted Black politics in the Caribbean and parts of Africa, Europe and America. While attending Martin Van Buren High School in Queens in 1968, he joined the NAACP High School Youth Council. After college, Mondesire became the second African-American reporter to work for the Baltimore Sun, and continued to break barriers when he became one of the first Black editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer. After several years as a City Hall reporter, Mondesire became the top aide to Congressman William H. Gray, serving in that position for a dozen years. When Grey retired, the former newspaper man returned to journalism as the co-founder, publisher and editor in chief of the Philadelphia Sunday SUN in 1992. He also added a new title: President of the Philadelphia Branch of the NAACP.

Mondesire’s election was hard-fought, but upon winning he also served as the state conference vice president and at his peak presided over 45 branches with nearly 15,000 members. His duty was to focus on economic development and inclusion, which the Philadelphia branch has worked toward with many advocacy groups, including Mothers in Charge and Men United for a Better Philadelphia.

“There is a horrible disconnect between politics and people,” Mondesire told CRISIS magazine in 2008. “We’ve lost the political machine. When ward leaders and Council members knocked on doors to get people to vote, people were in direct touch with the government. Civil service reform separated people from government. We’ve replaced it with the reliance on television.”

In that interview, Mondesire pledged that the Philadelphia branch would change the historic tradition of the NAACP by focusing on economic inequality. “We don’t punish people who deny us access and that has got to change,” said Mondesire. “That is the final frontier of the civil rights movement. African-Americans are the only ethnic group in America that do not employ the majority of their own people, and it has terrible repercussions.”

Five years later, Mondesire was accused by three board members (who were also former friends) of depositing $10,500 intended for the NAACP in the account of the Next Generation Community Development Corp., an organization founded by Mondesire and others in 1999. At the time, the North Philadelphia NAACP headquarters was without heat.

One of the little-known intended programs of the allegedly misplaced funds was the NAACP’s ACT-SO program. High school and college students across the country are encouraged to participate in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), “a year-long achievement program designed to recruit, stimulate and encourage high academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students.” According to the NAACP website: “Of the city’s 35 lower performing schools, 23 (66 percent) are clustered in or very near neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration — where the biggest taxpayer investment is being made towards incarceration. By contrast, of Philadelphia’s 28 higher performing schools, 21 (75 percent) are in neighborhoods with the lowest rates of incarceration.”

Eventually, the national NAACP audited the books, took over the chapter, and in 2013 dismissed Mondesire. In December 2014, Minister Rodney Muhammad was elected to lead the regional organization. Upon installation, Muhammad said he would review and cull the chapter’s membership roll of inactive members and then proceed to rebuild the size of the group and increase participation in the NAACP’s ACT-SO program.

“We will work toward healing,” Muhammad said.

In July, nearly 100 Philly students joined the thousands of students across the country participating in ACT-SO’s 26 categories of competition in the sciences, humanities, business, and performing and visual arts. By week’s end, 17 local students went to the national competition and three won top honors.

Since its inception, more than 260,000 young people have participated in the ACT-SO program, thus ensuring youth will always continue to hope, strive and thrive for excellence despite — and in spite of — the alleged misdeeds of some adults.

Mondesire’s viewing will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 13th from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Bright Hope Baptist Church at 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Gathering of friends: Champagne’s Lounge & Cafe at 21 E. Chelten Ave. at 9 p.m. The celebration of his life is on Wednesday, Oct. 14th at 11 a.m. at Bright Hope. Repass: Bright Hope after the service. 

In lieu of flowers, send donations to ACT-SO Philly, Philly NAACP Youth Council, or PABJ J. “Whyatt” Mondesire Scholarship.

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