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.