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Preserving the records of a public official

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke celebrates her first anniversary as a Los Angeles County supervisor in 1980. (Photo/Library Exhibits Collection, USC Digital Library)

With Los Angeles voters choosing a new mayor on May 21, scholars and the popular media have turned their attention to local electoral politics. For those seeking to draw lessons from the city’s recent electoral past, the USC Libraries’ Special Collections offer a wealth of rare and relevant primary-source materials.

Among them are the papers of Yvonne Brathwaite Burke ’56, a pioneering public official who represented Los Angeles in the state legislature and U.S. Congress before serving four consecutive terms as a Los Angeles County supervisor. During her more than four decades of public service, Burke worked to expand civil rights for women and minorities and empower economically disadvantaged communities.

Born in Los Angeles in 1932, Burke attended UCLA as an undergraduate. In 1953, she became the second black woman ever to be admitted to the then-USC School of Law. After earning her degree in 1956, Burke entered private practice, where she battled inequities in real estate and probate law. One of her early triumphs involved a successful fight to desegregate local real estate boards, which often discriminated against African-American homebuyers.

Her first stint as a public servant came in 1965 when Gov. Pat Brown appointed her to the commission that was investigating the causes of the Watts riots. A year later she was elected to the California State Assembly, and in 1972 her constituents elevated her to the U.S. House of Representatives. As a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Burke championed landmark legislation requiring the federal government to award a minimum percentage of contracts to businesses owned by women and minorities.

After Burke unsuccessfully sought election as California state attorney general, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her in 1979 to fill a vacancy on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Her initial term was brief — she lost re-election in 1980 — but in 1992 Los Angeles voters returned Burke to the Board of Supervisors. She was re-elected three times, retiring in December 2008.

Burke broke ground throughout her political career, setting an impressive number of precedents: first African-American woman elected to the California State Assembly (1966); first African-American woman to represent California in Congress (1973); first member of Congress to give birth while in office (1973); first African-American to serve on the USC Board of Trustees (1975); and first African-American to serve on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (1979).

USC Libraries archivists recently processed Burke’s papers and prepared two detailed finding aids that enhance access to the collection. Within the 878 boxes are primary-source documents that span nearly 50 years and tell the story of how Burke turned personal initiative into public action. Included are correspondence, photographs, videos, draft legislation, government reports, campaign artifacts, speeches, schedules and telephone logs, among other materials.

To access the papers or for more information about the USC Libraries’ 40 other archival collections of political materials, contact Dace Taube at (213) 821-2366 or or consult the online research guide at


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