by Len Lear
You probably read last week or saw on TV that J. Whyatt “Jerry” Mondesire, a local resident, died Oct. 4. After a dialysis treatment at Chestnut Hill Hospital on Oct. 2, he suffered a brain aneurysm and was transferred to Jefferson Hospital, where he was placed on a ventilator and died two days later.
Mondesire, 65, was a founding member of The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ), publisher of the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP for 17 years. But my personal connection with Jerry had nothing to do with any of these impressive titles.
In the late summer of 1977 I got a call from Mondesire, who was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time. (He later became the first African American editor in the paper’s history.) He said he had heard there were some things going on in the editorial department of the Philadelphia Tribune, where I had worked for 10 years, that he thought the public should know about.
He asked if I and the other reporters would be willing to meet with him to discuss the issues and have him write an article for the Inquirer. I checked with the other newsroom staffers, and every one wanted to meet with Mondesire to air our grievances since they had essentially been ignored by Tribune management up to that time.
One grievance was that certain political stories that made black politicians look bad were either killed, or the negative parts were edited out. A managing editor who died many years ago and who was responsible for the censorship had previously worked for certain Democratic politicians and still had close ties to them.
When we complained about the censorship, he said angrily, “This black paper is not going to tear down our black politicians. We had to work and fight too hard for too many years to get them where they are today, and we are not going to tear down our own people. The white papers (Inquirer, Bulletin and Daily News) do a good enough job of that.”
“But we are talking about corruption that is hurting black people in the inner city,” replied one of us. “What good is it to have black faces on the politicians when they are doing the exact things to their own community that we are always accusing white politicians of doing?”
That argument fell on deaf ears. There were about seven reporters complaining about this practice of selective censorship, by the way. All were African American except me.
Another issue involved prize money. Every year the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), which represented black-oriented newspapers all over the country, gave out prizes for the best articles of the year, which included prize money.
On one occasion I was awarded first prize for best consumer-related articles in the country among all member newspapers. I had written a series of 56 articles about consumer fraud in Philadelphia among home improvement companies, new and used car dealerships, banks, etc. The publisher kept my plaque and put it on his own office wall, and I was handed a check for $375.
I was thrilled because that $375 amounted to about two weeks pay, but after another week or so went by, our city editor, Pamala Haynes, pulled me aside and said, “Len, I am not supposed to tell you this, but it is really weighing on my conscience, so I am going to tell you. I was at the NNPA awards dinner in Atlanta when the plaques and checks were handed out, and I saw your check. It was made out to you for $750, not $375. When the bosses got back to Philly, they deposited that $750 check into the paper’s account and wrote a new check for you for half the amount. The same thing happened to Harry Amana (another reporter), who won a second place prize. They kept half of his money, too.”
Of course I was not happy. I marched I into the office of our publisher, the late E. Washington Rhodes, after whom an elementary school in North Philadelphia is named. I told him what I learned about the check and asked him if it was true that the management had confiscated half of my prize money. To my surprise, Rhodes admitted it quickly.
“The way I look at this, Len,” he said, “is that we gave you a job. You sit in our office and use our typewriter and our telephone. You could not do any of your articles if we did not allow you to do them. So we feel that the newspaper is entitled to half of that prize money. We think that is fair.”
I told him I seriously doubted that there was another newspaper in the country that took checks that were clearly made out to staff members and kept half of their money. I told him I was pretty sure that it was against the law as well as against common decency. I got nowhere, however.
These were the things, among others, that we told Mondesire. One of the reporters asked Jerry if he would feel he was betraying the black community by printing an expose of the city’s only black newspaper. He said, “Of course not. If we have a double standard for black institutions, then we are saying that black people are not good enough to live up to the values that we expect of all people. Right is right, and wrong is wrong; the color does not matter!”
Needless to say, I have had the utmost respect for Mondesire ever since.
His article came out in October, 1977, in the now-defunct Sunday Inquirer Magazine. It was headlined “Tribulations of the Tribune,” and it included the issues mentioned above as well as some others.
He had asked me if he could use my name along with my quotes in the article or if I wanted to remain anonymous. “If your name is in there, there is definitely a chance you will be fired,” he said. I replied, “As a reporter myself, I know that an allegation has a lot more credibility when there is a name attached to it. And since I tell people I quote that I would rather they not remain anonymous, I should put my money where my mouth is.”
Mondesire insisted, however, that he would leave my name out if that’s what I wanted. I said no.
The day after the article came out in the Inquirer, I was called into the publisher’s office and told I was being fired. I do not have the letter any more that they handed me, but it basically said that whether or not my claims were true (they did not deny any of it), I had betrayed the company by going public with my comments. We should have kept our opinions within our building, and I had to be fired because I could never be trusted again not to go public with any complaints I had about management.
Of course Mondesire felt terrible when he found out what had happened. “I did warn you,” he said. He asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said, “Certainly. Get me a job with the Inquirer.”
Obviously, he could not do that, but one month later I got a job with the Philadelphia Journal, a tabloid daily newspaper, like the Daily News, which made its debut on Dec. 7, 1977. It only lasted four years and was then closed by the company after the Newspaper Guild members refused to take a pay cut during a severe recession.
Although Mondesire received more than his share of criticism later in life after becoming president of the local NAACP, for me he always represented the highest standards of integrity and truth that newspapers are supposed to represent. I, along with many others, will miss him.