Written by Katie Sheetz on March 5, 2015

Sister’s Inn: Re-discovering a San Luis Obispo business

In the fall of 2014, Special Collections and Archives acquired a box full of photos, newspaper clippings, and magazines. As a Special Collections Student Assistant, it is my job to reach back through the years and find the story that these records are trying to tell. As I sorted through the photos and deciphered the handwriting, a picture began to form centered around what may be the first African-American restaurant owned in San Luis Obispo and a (most likely) granddaughter who would later go on to act with stars like Isaac Hayes, Max Julien, Richard Pryor, and even Muhammad Ali.

Business card for Sister's Inn. City directories show that the business was in operation from about 1954 to 1965. (Sister's Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000001)

Business card for Sister’s Inn. City directories show that the business was in operation from about 1954 to 1965. (Sister’s Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000001)

The records in the collection tell a story that begins in the early 1950s, when two sisters, Annabelle Warren and Alice Harris, opened the restaurant Sister’s Inn at 208 Higuera Street, adjacent to Paul’s Dry Cleaners & Laundry (see a current view here). Sister’s Inn was just a 2-minute walk up the street from Japantown. After WWII, African Americans settled in the area, and the neighborhood, specifically Brook Street (formerly Eto Street, named after the Eto family, who helped develop San Luis Obispo’s Japantown), became home not only to two African American churches but also to Annabelle Warren and Alice Harris and their families.

In San Luis Obispo City Directories, Sister’s Inn shows up continuously for over a decade, from 1954 to 1965. From the photos, a loving and fun atmosphere seems to surround the family-friendly restaurant that counted “Southern Fried Chicken” amongst its specialties.

A page from a family photo album featuring the early days of Sister’s Inn circa 1955, before being rebuilt. (Sister's Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000002_008)

A page from a family photo album featuring the early days of Sister’s Inn circa 1955, before being rebuilt. (Sister’s Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000002_008)

Featured on a postcard for senator elections, the rebuilt Sister’s Inn stood near the corner of Higuera St and South St circa 1954-1965 and served as the first African American owned restaurant in SLO. (Sister's Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000011-02)

Featured on a postcard for senator elections, the rebuilt Sister’s Inn stood near the corner of Higuera St and South St circa 1954-1965 and served as the first African American owned restaurant in SLO. (Sister’s Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000011-02)

Another view of the rebuilt Sister's Inn (we can date this around 1955 by the 1955 Chevy four door sedan pictured).(Sister's Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000009)

Another view of the rebuilt Sister’s Inn (we can date this around 1955 by the 1955 Chevy four door sedan pictured).(Sister’s Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000009)

In its eclectic nature, the collection also tells the story of several siblings, probably the grandchildren of Annabelle Warren and Alice Harris.

Five young girls photographed in front of a San Luis Obispo sign, 1951. The three on the left are possibly the Williams sisters Alice, Rosa Lee, and Annazette. (Sister's Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000003)

Five young girls photographed in front of a San Luis Obispo sign, 1951. The three on the left are possibly the Williams sisters Alice, Rosa Lee, and Annazette. (Sister’s Inn Collection, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, 189_spc_000003)

Newspaper clippings and photographs tell the stories of these probable grandchildren, three sisters–Alice, Rosa Lee, and Annazette Williams–during the late 1950s. Integral members of a nearly all-white community, the siblings attended local schools, including San Luis Obispo High School (for perspective, the landmark Brown v Board court case desegregated schools in 1954 and the Little Rock Integration Crisis was in 1957, both during the sisters’ teenage years). Older sister Alice was an award-winning twirler, leader-instructor and head majorette at San Luis Obispo High who would continue on to L.A. State College. Younger sister Rosa Lee was likewise a head majorette and also an usherette for class theater productions, and the youngest sister, Annazette, tied for head cheerleader and participated in the dramatic classes and fashion shows of her schools. Photos of a younger brother Ronnie also surface throughout the collection.

Later records in the collection include glamorous magazines and beauty shots. It appears that sometime in the 1960s, Annazette returned to her birth city of Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Playing unaccredited roles for several years, she worked throughout the late 1960s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s in roles in movies and TV series, becoming known for the movies The Toy with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason, Truck Turner with Isaac Hayes, Bogard with Richard Lawson, and The Greatest with Muhammad Ali. Throughout this time, she would send photographs, signed with loving messages, to her family and friends back in San Luis Obispo, including one addressed to “MaMa and Grandpa Jim”–possibly the Alice Harris and James Bowers of Sister’s Inn (who would go on to later marry in 1962 and who were buried together at the Los Osos Valley Memorial Park).

Help us piece together San Luis Obispo’s past–if you have any information on Sister’s Inn, the Williams family, or other facts we should know, please contact us at the Kennedy Library Special Collections and Archives.

 

(1) Learn more about San Luis Obispo’s Japantown in the 2013 City of San Luis Obispo Citywide Historic Context Statement (accessible at http://slocity.org/home/showdocument?id=4042). See a map of Japantown here: http://japantownatlas.com/map-sanluis.html 

Read more on San Luis Obispo History, special collections and archives, and Women's History Month.