Hope for Overtown

At 11:45 this morning, Jackson Soul Food restaurant at 950 NW Third Ave. was standing-room-only. Overtown and Liberty City residents packed every booth, table, and counter inside the storied and recently  remodeled soul food eatery as they watched President Barack Obama's inaugural ceremony on three brand-new flat-screen TV sets on the walls. It was an appropriate venue for Miami's black community to celebrate America's first black president.

Jackson Soul Food started business in 1946 when Johnny Mae Johnson opened up the first location in the heart of Overtown. He passed on the restaurant to his brother Demo and his wife Jesse. When they died, their children took over the family business. Jackson Soul Food has survived through four locations and three riots, playing an important role in Overtown's history. "We like to think Jackson Soul Food is more than just a place to eat," says Mellonaise Jackson, one of the siblings. "This is a center of hope where we can come together as one."

Indeed, change is coming to Overtown. In addition to financing the $800,000 renovation of Jackson Soul Food, the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency doled out $300,000 to remodel Just Right Barber Shop at 1133 NW Third Ave. Ten other Overtown businesses have received a combined $179,000 from the CRA, which is also spending $125,000 to put in new sewer lines and landscaping, as well as resurface the street and sidewalk along Third Avenue. Time will tell if prosperity follows.

But today, it was all about celebrating Obama. Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who organized the viewing party, wept as Aretha Franklin sang "America." Before Obama was introduced as president, Spence-Jones and Rev. Raymond Carvil Sr. led the patrons in a prayer. When Wolf Blitzer's voice announced Obama "is now president of the United States," the crowd roared with applause and cheers.

Among the attendees was the silver-haired Lee Bethune. The 76-year-old South Carolina native moved to Miami 52 years ago. He worked in a segregated area of the now-defunct June Dairy until 1968. That year, he started his own business, B&B's Laundromat, which is still open. "This is a moment that I want to happen again and again," Bethune said. "I love it. It's beautiful."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.