Burke, Yvonne Brathwaite (1932—)

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Burke, Yvonne Brathwaite (1932—)

First African-American woman to be elected to the California General Assembly and California's first black congresswoman (Democrat, 93rd–95th Congresses, January 3, 1973–January 3, 1979). Name variations: Yvonne Brathwaite. Born Pearl Yvonne Watson in Los Angeles, California, on October 5, 1932; only child of James T. (a janitor at MGM film studios) and Lola (Moore) Watson; attended University of California at Berkeley, 1949; granted B.A. degree from University of California at Los Angeles, 1953; J.D. degree, University of Southern California School of Law, 1956; married Louis Brathwaite in 1957 (divorced, 1964); married William A. Burke, June 14, 1972; children: (second marriage) Autumn Roxanne (b. 1973) and stepdaughter, Christine.

Yvonne Burke was the first black woman to be elected to the California General Assembly, as well as the first to represent California in the U.S. Congress. In 1973, she was the first congressional representative to be granted a maternity leave, and in 1976 the first woman selected to chair the Congressional Black Caucus. An outspoken and articulate advocate of social welfare, Burke described Congress as a way to make a difference. "I want to be able to look back and say there are people whose lives are better because I served there."

An only child, Burke grew up on the East Side of Los Angeles in what she called an "integrated slum with lots of yards and trees." Her parents struggled to provide her with a decent education, including music and speech lessons. From public school, she transferred to a model school affiliated with the University of Southern California where, as the only black student, she endured occasional racial taunts. At Manual Arts High School, she excelled. With the help of a scholarship from her father's union and her own part-time work, she graduated from the University of Southern California at Los Angeles before going on to law school, supporting herself by modeling. When the campus women's law society refused to admit blacks and Jews, Burke and two Jewish students started another professional society.

Admitted to the California state bar in 1956, Burke went into private practice. In 1957, she married Louis Brathwaite whom she later divorced. (She would marry William A. Burke in 1972.) In addition to her law practice, she served as the state's deputy corporations commissioner and as a hearing officer for the Los Angeles Police Commission. In 1965, she was an attorney for the McCone Commission, which was established to investigate the causes of the Watts' riot. She also worked with a NAACP legal defense team, preparing a report on housing conditions in the Los Angels area. Burke received the NAACP's Loren Miller Award in recognition of her efforts on behalf of the California legal system.

Her run for the California General Assembly required that she first defeat six male opponents in the primary and then endure a campaign in which her ultra-conservative opponent accused her of being a black militant and a Communist. Elected to the Assembly for three terms, she supported prison reform, child care for the underprivileged, equal job opportunities for women, and increased federal aid to education. She also introduced legislation to require licensing of nursing homes, to provide day care on college campuses and to insure

truth in packaging and drug labeling. After trouncing her conservative Republican opponent with 73% of the vote in the November 1972 Congressional election, Burke remarked, "There is no longer any need for anyone to speak for all black women. I expect Shirley Chisholm is feeling relieved." In her bid for reelection in 1974, Burke was elected to a second term, beating her opponent by over 66,000 votes.

During her tenure in Congress, Burke served on the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and later transferred to the Committee on Appropriations, where she called for additional federal funding of community nutrition programs. She also supported funding for the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees and supported the Humphrey-Hawking bill for full employment. In 1977, Burke joined several other members in securing a human-rights amendment to the foreign-aid bill, and she supported other efforts to pressure foreign governments guilty of human-rights violations. She also worked to restore planning grants from Housing and Urban Development. That same year, she introduced the Displaced Homemakers Act, which authorized job training for women entering the labor market.

Burke did not seek reelection for a third term in 1978, choosing instead to run for California attorney general. Failing to win the election, she was appointed to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, where she served from June 1979 until her resignation in December 1980. She then returned to her Los Angeles law practice. In 1992, she was elected to a four-year term as a Los Angeles County Supervisor; she was re-elected in 1996.


Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1975. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1976.

Office of the Historian. Women in Congress, 1917–1990. Commission on the Bicentenary of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts