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Politics and Government Archival Collections in USC Libraries Special Collections: Yvonne Brathwaite Burke

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Introduction

The papers of Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (1932-  ), comprised of Collection 0218.1 and Collection 0218.2, provide documentation about her distinguished politcal career (1966-2008) as an elected official at the three levels of government -- local, state, and federal. She served as a member of the California State Assembly (1967-1972), a member of the U.S. House of Representives 1973-1979), and first as an apppointed member, and later, elected member, of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (1978-1980, 1992-2008).

Biography

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, named Perle Yvonne Watson by her parents James T. and Lola Moor Watson, was born on October 5, 1932 in Los Angeles, California. After graduating from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles in 1947, she earned her BA in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and her JD from the University of Southern California (USC) School of Law in 1956. She was the first African American woman admitted to the USC Law School since 1927. Burke was admitted to the California bar in 1956 and began private practice in Los Angeles. During her legal career, she focused on real estate, civil, and probate law.

Burke interspersed her private law practice with public service. First, in 1964, she was appointed by Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Sr., to a state-level position as a Corporation Commissioner, responsible for investigating and approving business licenses. The next year, in 1965, Gov. Brown selected her to the five-member McCone Commission which he established to investigate the causes of the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, making her the first African American woman on the commission. In 1966, she ran for and was elected to the California State Assembly representing Assembly District 64 in Los Angeles and was the first African American woman elected to that legislative body. During her tenure in the Assembly, which ended in 1972, Burke served on the Finance and Insurance Committee and the Health and Criminal Justice Committee, and chaired the Urban Development and Housing Committee. She introduced over 70 bills and resolutions, and saw 31 of them enacted. In 1972, Burke achieved another first when she became the first African American woman to be selected as Vice Chair of the Democratic National Convention, which duties included presiding over the convention proceedings in the absence of the chair.

In 1972, Burke decided to run for the U.S. Congress, and was elected to represent the 37th Congressional District in Los Angeles County, a district which had been created the year before by the California State Legislature. In turn in 1973, the California State Supreme Court geographically altered the district and renumbered it the 28th District, which she represented for the remainder of her time in Congress through the end of 1978. Shortly after she began her congressional service, Burke became the first member to give birth while in Congress, and asked for and was granted maternity leave, another first, by the Speaker of the House. During her term in Congress, she served first on the Public Works Committee and the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, and subsequently on the important Appropriations Committee. She also served on the Select Committee on Assassinations, and chaired the Select Committee on the House Beauty Parlor during her Congressional tenure. While a member, she was a member of and elected to a term as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (1975). She also was a charter member of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, serving as its first treasurer (1977).

After almost six years in Congress, Burke decided she wanted to return to California. Rather than run for re-election in 1978, she chose instead to run for California Attorney General. Although she won the Democratic Party primary, she lost in the general election to Republican George Deukmejian, a State Senator who later was elected Governor.

After her defeat, Burke completed her third term in Washington, and then moved back permanently to California to practice law. After a few months, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Burke to fill an unexpired term on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in June 1979. Again Burke achieved another first, this time she became the first African American to serve on the Board of Supervisors. She served in this position until December 1980. Although she sought election to stay on the Board, she lost in the general election.                                                        

In the 1980's, Burke practiced law in Los Angeles. But she did not stay completely out of public view. For example, she was the vice chair of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee.

But her time out of public office came to an end in 1992 when she was elected to the first of several terms on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. With this election, she became the first African American to win election to the Board, and served until December 2008, completing four four-year terms. During her terms on the Board, Burke was involved in several major activities: instrumental in establishing child care centers that provide supervision, learning enrichment, and meals; established the Second District Education and Policy Foundation; advanced economic development in the Second District by promoting the establishment of businesses in previously underserved areas; championed parkland improvements in her district; and led the effort to establish a County archives system.                                                                               

In addition to her private law practice and her public service political career, Burke received several prestigious appointments during her career. She served on both the University of Southern California Board of Trustees (the first African American to do so) and the University of California Board of Regents. She is past chair of the Los Angeles Federal Reserve Bank, and has been a member of several corporate boards.

Shortly after her retirement from the Board of Supervisors, Burke became a mediator with the Alternative Resolution Centers.

Burke currently lives in Los Angeles.

The Yvonne Brathwaite Burke papers

The Yvonne Brathwaite Burke papers: California State Assembly, U.S. Congress, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and California Attorney General Campaign contain the papers of the political activities of Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, University of Southern California Gould Law School alumna, state and federal legislator, and county official. Included are records from Burke's tenure in the California Assembly (1966-1972), U.S. Congress (1973-1978), and the Los Angeles Angeles County Board of Supervisor (1979-1980). Records also include her campaign for California State Attorney General (1978).

The Yvonne Brathwaite Burke papers: Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors contain the papers of the political activities of Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, University of Southern California Gould Law School alumna, state and federal legislator, and county official. Included in this collection are the records from Burke's second tenure on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (1992-2008).

Exhibits/websites

Origins of the CBC, Avoice (African American Voices in Congress).

Women of the CBC, Avoice (African American Voices in Congress)

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke: A Life in Politics, USC Black Alumni Association.

Research resources

California State Archives--official repository for California's permanent governmental records, including legislative resources.

California State Assembly--official website containing information about the State Assembly and its activities.

Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)--formed in 1971, its membership consists entirely of African American members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Congresswoman Burke was the first female chair of the CBC.

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation--founded in 1976, the Foundation sponsors programs of interest to the Congressional Black Caucus and its supporters.

C-SPAN.org--website contains an interview done with Yvonne Brathwaite Burke televised in 2011, as part of its American History TV Series.

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors--official website containing information about the Board of Supervisors and its activities.

National Archives, Center for Legislative Archives--a part of the National Archives, the Center for Legislative Archives contains the official records of the U.S. Congress and some personal papers of Members of Congress.

The HistoryMakers--calls itself "the single largest archival collection in the world," includes a biography of Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, which is based on an interview done with Ms. Burke in 2001.

U.S. House of Representatives--official website containing information about the House of Representatives and its activities.

Resource guides and directories

African American Members of Congress: 1870-2011--report prepared by the Congressional Research Service identifying the African American members of Congress beginning in 1870 and continuing to 2011.

Black Americans in Congress--website includes biographical information about former African American Members of Congress. It is based on the book, Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007.

Guide to Research Collections of Former Members of the United States House of Representatives, 1789-1987--a printed source for locating Congressional papers.

Women in Congress--website includes biographical information about former women Members of Congress. It is based on the book, Women in Congress, 1917-2006.