Yvonne Brathwaite Burke is well acquainted with being the “first.” Throughout her extensive public service career, she garnered multiple “firsts” as she spearheaded initiatives for the betterment of minorities, women and all people.
African Americans in greater Los Angeles and hundreds of thousands across the U.S. benefitted from Burke’s actions in her positions as the “first.” They include her being one of the first Black women admitted to the University of California School of Law in the mid-1950s, her election as California’s first African American assemblywoman in 1966, becoming the state’s first Black female Congresswoman in 1973, and elected in 1992 as the first African American woman to serve as a Los Angeles County supervisor and later as the first Black woman to chair the Board of Supervisors.
In addition, Burke has held leading roles on several local, state and national commissions and committees such as vice chair of the 1972 Democratic National Convention and vice chair of the 1984 U.S. Olympics Organizing Committee. She also served as California’s deputy corporation commissioner and as a hearing officer for the Los Angeles Police Commission.
No matter what position she held, Burke was always consistent in advocating for civil rights and equal opportunities for women and minorities. She demonstrated her commitment to those causes as a state legislator while chairing the Assembly’s Committee on Urban Development. Her dedication continued in Congress where she served on the Public Works and the Interior and Insular Affairs Committees before securing a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
While serving in Congress from 1972 to 1978, Burke was determined to address the myriad levels of discrimination that African Americans endured. According to an article in the March 1974 issue of Ebony magazine, she said, “The kinds of things we faced in my generation were easy to understand,” she explained. “Your parents said, ‘They don’t let you sit down here, they don’t let you go to that place.’ Everybody knew. But now it is so complex, so frustrating to young people when they are led to believe that everything is fine, yet at the same time, it is not fine.”
Burke strived to combat inequalities by fighting for minority-owned businesses to obtain contracts on the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, a nearly 800-mile project; and sought to assist women’s rights by introducing the Displaced Homemakers Act, which created job-training centers for women entering the labor market. Burke also presented a bill to ban pregnancy-related bias in the workplace and strongly disapproved of the Hyde Amendment, which outlawed using Medicaid funds for abortions.
She referred to her Congressional interests as an effort to address the needs of “three constituencies,” she explained in an oral history interview in 2015. “I had a constituency of African Americans, a constituency of women, and a constituency that elected me.” Also, Burke amassed a huge public following after she became the first congresswoman to give birth while in office and according to Wikipedia, the first elected official to be granted maternity leave by the Speaker of the House.
For 18 years, Burke served as a county supervisor. She was appointed by the governor to represent the Fourth District from 1979 to 1980. From 1992 to 2008, she was the Second District supervisor and she never wavered from promoting those issues that defined her public service career – helping minorities and the underserved. For example, she worked to establish several child care centers in her district, created a foundation to award scholarships to students, developed small business centers in unincorporated areas and championed improvements at parks around the county.
Burke retired as county supervisor in 2008 and at the age of 76, she became a mediator with the Alternative Resolution Centers, focusing on state and local regulatory issues, commercial disputes, medical malpractice, labor and employment, land use and environmental law. Also, she currently serves on the California Transportation Commission and on the Amtrak Board of Directors, an appointment made by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Burke graduated from Manual Arts High School, earned an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and a juris doctorate degree from the University of Southern California (USC). She was admitted to the California State Bar in 1956.
Burke is married to William A. Burke, a Los Angeles businessman and chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. She has a daughter, Autumn, who is a California Assembly member, and a stepdaughter, Christine Burke.