With a short temper, a tall Stetson hat, and unrelenting political resolve, Philadelphia civil rights giant J. Whyatt Mondesire was known for getting his way.
And Thursday in City Council, four years after the former Philadelphia NAACP president’s death, he got his way — “J. Whyatt Mondesire Way” — once more.
Council unanimously voted to name the 6600 block of Germantown Avenue “J. Whyatt Mondesire Way” after the larger-than-life Philadelphia character. The street is the longtime home of the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, the weekly newspaper “Jerry” Mondesire founded in 1992.
“I think this means that his legacy will continue more, that the work that he’s done will continue more,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who introduced the resolution to name the street in her district for Mondesire. “We want to be able to call on the name of Jerry Mondesire when our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren go by and say, ‘Who was that?’ We want to be able to tell his story.”
After a life spent in Philadelphia’s political spotlight, Mondesire died at 65 after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015. Raised in Harlem, Mondesire first became involved with the NAACP on a youth council in his high school. A former reporter and editor for The Inquirer, Mondesire left the paper in the 1980s to work as an aide to U.S. Rep William H. Gray III, earning a reputation as one of the most powerful political operatives in the city. He would later found the Sun and was named chief of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP in 1991.
“J. Whyatt Mondesire was not only a proponent of the business, but he was a renegade and he fought for the people,” said Sheriff-elect Rochelle Bilal, who has served as Philadelphia NAACP secretary since 2004, and spoke in favor of renaming the street during the Council meeting.
In 2014, Mondesire and three local board members were suspended by the national NAACP office over a feud stemming from allegations of misuse of chapter funds. Despite the rocky end to his tenure at the NAACP, Mondesire was never charged with a crime.
He was known for his advocacy on a range of issues. Outspoken on criminal justice reform, gun violence, educational inequity, and the election of African American judges, Mondesire was “a real strong voice for the African American community and through the NAACP,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, a longtime friend.
With slicked-back hair, a thick mustache, and sturdy build, Mondesire was often compared to 1960s civil rights crusader Cecil B. Moore, both in appearance and politics. In 1987, City Council renamed Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia as Cecil B. Moore Avenue to honor the similarly militant attorney and activist.
“It’s beautiful, it’s really beautiful,” said Mondesire’s son, Joseph, co-owner of the Sun. “That neighborhood, I was raised there, I still have my family there until this day. And this means I’ve got to step it up and work harder to live up to his legacy.”