Yvonne Brathwaite Burke is an attorney and former congresswoman who built over the decades a career distinguished by a series of remarkable firsts. Her rising star began to shine early when Burke, born Perle Yvonne Watson on Oct. 5, 1932, in Los Angeles, entered a school for exceptional children.
After earning a political science degree at the University of California Los Angeles, she was one of the first African-American women to attend the University of Southern California School of Law. And when no firms would hire a Black woman, she started her own law practice.
In 1966, Burke became the first African-American woman elected to the California State Assembly. She made her national political debut as vice chair of the platform committee at the Democratic National Convention in 1972 and became the first Black woman from her state to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She also is the first woman to chair the Congressional Black Caucus. Throughout her career on Capitol Hill, the California lawmaker served on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Burke also made congressional history when, in 1973, she became the first serving member to give birth and to receive maternity leave.
In 1978, Burke decided to retire from Congress and the next year was appointed to serve on the Los Angeles Board of county supervisors — another first for Black history. She lost a bid to be elected to the post in 1980, but in 1992, became the first African-American to win election as an L.A. County supervisor and later the first woman and minority to chair the board.
President Obama nominated Burke to head the Amtrak board of directors. The U.S. Senate confirmed her for the post in January 2013.
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(Photo: United States Congress)