Miami — The line went out the door and around the building when Jumbo’s, an iconic soul food joint in Miami’s downtrodden Liberty City, closed in July.
But many of the customers who came for a final taste of the James Beard Award-winning restaurant’s signature fried shrimp, fried conch, pigeon peas or collard greens had no idea they were celebrating the last day of an institution that shone like a beacon at a time before Miami was the Havana of the North, when it was still a bastion of Southern segregation.
For unbeknown to many of its younger customers, Jumbo’s is as important a symbol of the civil rights movement in South Florida as Herren’s Restaurant, in Atlanta; Helma’s, in Knoxville, Tennessee, or the Manhattan Cafe in San Antonio. It was the first in Miami to integrate its staff and let blacks sit in the dining room.
It was 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in public places, a law apparently ignored in Miami.
“It was a business decision and a moral decision,” said Bobby Flam, 69, whose Jewish family owned Jumbo’s for 59 years, and who ultimately became the only white business owner to stay in Liberty City after riots erupted in 1980. “I didn’t realize at that time it was such a big deal.”
To anyone older than 60, Martin Luther King Jr. was a real person. Seniors remember seeing him speak contemporaneously and recall the immediacy of live television images showing a man rallying throngs of blacks and whites against the dogs and fire hoses of the segregated South.
To anyone younger than 50, King is a question on a history test, or an excuse for a holiday in January.
The same logic applies to Jumbo’s — open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and once the choice place to go in the black community after the theaters let out and the clubs closed. It was where folks came for late-night snacks, where teens ordered burgers and fries or BLTs in combinations named for local high schools like Northwestern or Miami-Edison or Booker T. Washington. It was where folks dressed in their Sunday finery came for lunch after church.
The Flam family bought Jumbo’s in 1955, when Isadore and his wife, Sara, moved south to Miami Beach from Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, where Isadore owned a general store and the Flam family were the only Jews for miles around. (The restaurant had originally been named Jumbo Frank’s after a portly previous owner.)
By 1966 Liberty City was transitioning from a white, working-class community to a predominantly black neighborhood, and Bobby Flam, then 21, started thinking of integrating shortly after he took over the business.