Miami diner served up shrimp with a side of civil rights

Bobby Flam put his family's business on the line to usher in an integrated dining room

That a tired-looking, all-night joint on a busy street in a rough part of town is closing its doors might seem barely worth a shrug. But when Jumbo’s served its final plates of fried shrimp last month, hundreds of customers and well-wishers crowded in to mark the moment – knowing there will never be another place like it or another person like its owner Bobby Flam.

In Miami, this 24-hour diner and the man who ran it were famous, not only for their shrimp and wings and cracked conch, but for serving generous portions of goodwill, no matter the color of a customer’s skin.

The back room of Jumbo's, where black customers in the 1950s and early 1960s had to get their food from a cook through the window into the kitchen.
America Tonight

“Treat the customer like you would want to be treated if you went into a restaurant,” Flam said of his philosophy. “Treat them with the utmost respect. Be as nice as you can. If you’re respectful to the customer, even if your food doesn’t come out perfect, they’ll like you.”

Flam took over Jumbo’s from his father, who bought it in 1955 when Liberty City was a white working-class neighborhood. Back then, Miami was like any other city in the Deep South. According to Paul George, a history professor at Miami Dade College, segregation was as extreme in Miami as it was in Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla.

“They couldn’t share the same bathroom as whites,” George said. “They couldn’t share the same water fountain.”

A few blocks from Jumbo’s, there are still remnants of a concrete wall that once separated the black neighborhood from white Miami. At Jumbo’s in the early days, black customers had to go through the back door and sit in a back room, where food was passed through a window from the kitchen. 

‘You’re free to quit’

Then, in 1967, fresh out of college, Flam took over. He opened the front door to everyone, making Jumbo’s one of the very first restaurants in Miami to integrate.

“I kept trying to tell the black customer you don’t have to come in the back door. You can come in dining room,” Flam said. “It took a while because the black customer wasn’t comfortable coming in the dining room.”

Many of his white employees felt uncomfortable too, when Flam announced he would begin hiring black cooks and waitresses.

“A couple of them right away said, ‘I’m not working with – they used the N-word,” Flam remembered. “I said, ‘You’re free to quit.’”

Within a month, 25 part-time waitresses and five full-time employees did just that. 

Since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Bobby Flam has struggled to keep the diner running. He said he was ready to let the family business go.

Flam never saw himself as a civil rights crusader. He said he just knew that integration was something that had to be done.

“It was time for it,” he said. “It was the right thing to do. Segregation I did not like. That back room I did not like.”

But in his study of this period of Florida history, George sees something especially significant in Flam’s decision to integrate Jumbo’s.

“He was taking a chance with his business, his employment, by opening it up to all races, by opening up his work force to all races,” he said. “So for me, he put more on the line than your average civil rights crusader did.”

Soon, Jumbo’s was the spot in Miami where blacks and whites felt comfortable next to each other. Customers might bump into the mayor or police chief. And everybody, including Jerome Starling, a minister who has been coming to Jumbo’s for nearly 30 years, loved the shrimp.

“Once we came into Jumbo’s, it was a good day,” Starling said. “The people were glad to have us. People like Bobby [Flam], they were glad to have us. They knew that we were good workers, they knew that we were good people.”

The regulars

In some ways, Jumbo’s was a safe haven during the city’s darkest days. In 1980, much of Miami erupted in violence after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating death of a black man. In Liberty City, many white-owned businesses were burned to the ground. But the community came out to protect Jumbo’s and the restaurant was left unscathed.

“[African-Americans] knew they were treated well by the owner,” Starling said. “And they knew that the owner had respect for African-Americans.”

Jumbo's closed its doors on July 23, 2014.
America Tonight

After the riots, white customers stopped coming. And in the next couple of decades, Liberty City struggled even more. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma cost Flam more than $400,000 in damage and nearly blew Jumbo’s off the map.

As the troubles piled up, so did the bills. Flam said it’s been hard for nine years. Now 69, he decided to sell the diner to a developer.

“I am sad in some ways,” Flam said. “I’m ready to move on. It’s been difficult, the last nine years.”

Over the years, the walls inside Jumbo’s became covered with accolades, from proclamations from the city and county to an entry in the Congressional Record recognizing Jumbo’s for its contribution to civil rights.

Even now, customers show up at Jumbo’s, unaware that it’s closed, and stare at the locked door in disbelief. The regulars are already nostalgic.

“If you wanted some good food, you’d come to Jumbo’s. If you wanted respect, you’d come to Jumbo’s, and that was a great thing about this place,” Starling said. “And that’s why this place will be truly missed – from the food and the respect.”

After nearly six decades, Flam has left behind a legacy of the goodwill he shared, the justice he served and the sweet aftertaste of the shrimp everyone loved.

“It does leave a hole not just because you no longer have this wonderful gathering place, but I think it leaves a psychological hole,” George said. “And there’s very few places in the neighborhood or even outside the neighborhood where the races came together comfortably and shared good times and shares discussions and things like that. It’s gone.”

More stories from America Tonight

Related News

Civil Rights, Food

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Civil Rights, Food

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter