Yvonne Brathwaite Burke


Stand on her Shoulders

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke was a rising star in California and national politics years before she won a seat in the U.S. House. In 1966 she became the first African-American woman elected to the California assembly. At the 1972 Democratic National Convention she served as vice chair of the platform committee, gaining national television exposure. That same year she became the first African-American woman elected to Congress from California; Burke and Barbara Jordan of Texas joined Shirley Chisholm of New York as the only Black women to that point ever elected to Congress.

Perle Yvonne Watson was born on October 5, 1932, in Los Angeles, California, the only child of James Watson, a custodian at the MGM film studios, and Lola (Moore) Watson, a real estate agent in East Los Angeles. Yvonne (she rejected the name Perle) grew up in modest circumstances and at first was enrolled in a public school. At age four she was transferred to a model school for exceptional children. Watson became the vice president of her class at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. She enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1949 but transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles, where she earned a BA in political science in 1953. She was among the first Black women to be admitted to the University of Southern California School of Law, Los Angeles, earning her JD and passing the California bar in 1956. After graduating, she found that no law firms would hire an African-American woman and, consequently, entered into her own private practice, specializing in civil, probate, and real estate law. In addition to her private practice, she served as the state’s deputy corporation commissioner and as a hearing officer for the Los Angeles police commission. In 1957 Yvonne Watson wed mathematician Louis Brathwaite. The marriage ended in divorce in 1964. Yvonne Brathwaite organized a legal defense team for Watts rioters in 1965 and was named by Governor Edmund Brown to the McCone Commission, which investigated the conditions that led to the unrest. A year later she won election to the California assembly.

In 1978 Burke declined to run for re-election to the 96th Congress (1979–1981), in order to campaign for the office of California attorney general, the chief law enforcement position for the state (and a position no woman had ever held in any state government). She won the Democratic nomination but lost to Republican state senator George Deukmejian in the general election. In June 1979, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Burke to the Los Angeles County board of supervisors, making her the first Black person ever to sit on the panel. In 1980 she lost her bid to a new four-year term and returned to private law practice. In 1984 Burke was the vice chair of the Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee. Burke became the first African American to win outright election as an L.A. County supervisor in 1992, defeating future Representative Diane Watson by a narrow margin. A year later, she became the first woman and the first person of color to chair the board. Burke served 16 years on the board of supervisors until her retirement in 2008. In 2012 she was appointed to the Amtrak board of directors by President Barack Obama. She also serves on the California transportation commission.

She is married William A. Burke, with whom she recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Their daughter Autumn Burke is a former California State Assemblymember, which earned the distinction of first mother-and-daughter to both serve in the California Assembly.

It is on the shoulders Yvonne B. Burke that former Congresswoman Diane Watson, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, Supervisor Holly Mitchell, California State Controller Malia M. Cohen and many others stand.


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