These excerpts are from an interview with Yvonne Burke conducted by Renee Poussaint as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project. More information can be found at http://www.visionaryproject.org/burkeyvonne.
Advice to Young African Americans
POUSSAINT: What kind of advice would you give to young African-Americans today?
BURKE: The advice that I give is to not be afraid to develop their potential to get the education. Don't be afraid to take a chance. You may not always be good surroundings you may be in hostile surroundings but hostile surroundings can probably bring out the best of you.
I say to African-American young women and men as well you have to be out there and you have to be prepared and don't let anybody tell you you can't. Don't....
This whole thing, that you have to talk bad, that you have to "dis" and "dat" and all of this stuff. You don't have to do that. You can do anything that you have the ability to do and don't let anybody hold you back.
Shirley Chisholm's Run For Presidency
POUSSAINT: What do you think of Shirley Chisholm's determination, decision to run for president?
BURKE: I thought it was a great idea. I was not in a position to really support her at the time because that was during the time I was running, but I thought it was great. And I thought it meant a lot to young people. And it was really very significant.
POUSSAINT: But at the same time, she had pointed out that that she was disappointed at the relative lack of at least public support from some of her black colleagues in Congress.
BURKE: Right, right. And I can understand that. But we all had certain obligations in terms of what we were working on, and my view was I would help her and support her but that didn't mean that I had to also have a realistic approach to some of the political issues that I had to face. And certainly I welcomed her into my district, did all kinds of things like that and helping in that sense, but I was not out at the forefront her campaign.
POUSSAINT: And so....
BURKE: It was questioned whether not it was a real serious campaign. It was a symbolic campaign and I think everyone accepted it as a serious campaign. I don't think that she honestly believe she was going to be elected president. She may have, but I don't think so. But I know that she realized that the kind of thing she was saying are things that needed to be said in a presidential campaign. And what she stood for needed to be said and need to be seen in a presidential campaign. And I thought this was very important.
POUSSAINT: On the other hand, there's the pragmatic reality of politics....
BURKE: That's right.
POUSSAINT: You have to do certain things to represent your constituents....
BURKE: Or you wouldn't even be there. In California, if you aren't identified with the candidates, you don't even go to the convention. You couldn't vote one way or the other. [laughing]
POUSSAINT: Well, Shirley's...one of the more memorable quotes from the interview that Camille did with her was, Camille asked her I think: If there's one thing that you could point to that caused you difficulty in your political life, what would it be? and she said, "Men." Just men black men, white men, yellow men just men.
BURKE: [laughing] Yea.
POUSSAINT: And she was adamant about that.
POUSSAINT: Why do you think your experience was so different?
BURKE: [considering] I don't know. As I said, I went to school and I was a political science major, and I went to law school and my whole education and training and everything was in a different context. And when I went to work, she was in teaching and she was in education. I was in law at a time when these were very different kinds of professions. Sometimes, also, it's a matter of each person's personality is different.
POUSSAINT: And she was also someone who certainly did not suffer fools well.
BURKE: No, she did not suffer fools.
Women in Congress
POUSSAINT: Barbara Jordan, you mentioned Barbara Jordan.
POUSSAINT: Tell me about Barbara Jordan.
BURKE: Well, Barbara was someone that I knew. We both went to the legislature at the same time. And she was really a very kind person, a wonderful person, a very bright person obviously. Everyone knows that she was brilliant. No-nonsense person. Also, not a person who really communicated with a lot of women. But the two of us became friends. And I guess we had parallel kind of careers both lawyers and we were able to communicate, even though, she didn't, you know, she didn't suffer fools. Well, I suffer fools. [laughing] She didn't bother about them, you know. You made no pretense to. And she also had out great support from her state, you know, and they were people who are very powerful. And she had been very close to Lyndon Johnson. The only unfortunate thing is that she didn't get attorney general or a Supreme Court or something like that. But those things I guess, you know, just passed her by.
POUSSAINT: Was she of the black women in Congress was she the one that you felt the closest to?
BURKE: Probably. [nodding]
POUSSAINT: Was there a sense...? How many black women were there by the time you left?
BURKE: By the time I left, Cardiss was there. There was Shirley, Cardiss, Barbara and I.
POUSSAINT: That's an interesting foursome. I mean....
BURKE: [laughing] I couldn't have four people more different. Can you imagine four people more different?
POUSSAINT: [laughing] No. I'm trying to picture the four of you, you know, to be....
BURKE: Now Cardiss came with her son....
POUSSAINT: Um hmm, right, right.
BURKE: Cardiss and I traveled a lot, together.
POUSSAINT: Did you find that people sort of assumed that you were a unit, I mean, that they put you together....?
BURKE: No. No, not at all. No. I was from the west, Barbara was from the southwest....
POUSSAINT: But you were women, in a male-....
POUSSAINT: ...dominated environment. And very often that's what happens. Women get marginalized. They get put over on the side or get put over in their section kinda thing. But that didn't happen?
BURKE: In Congress, you know, it's almost regionalized and Barbara was a person who always felt very close to her caucus and to her state. And she worked with them and she sat with them. I was from California and obviously, there were people that I was associated with. Cardiss also, being from a state where it's very strong, she really had to do a lot dealings within her state. But we all belonged to the women's caucus and we worked in the women's caucus and we worked on various legislation together. And if there was an issue that involved black women, we came together.
Running for U.S. Congress Part 1
POUSSAINT: Why did you decide that you wanted to run for the U.S. Congress?
BURKE: I went back to Washington on a trip and I just got so excited, it seemed so wonderful and I said, "I think I'd like to go to Congress." So when there was reapportionment, I worked very hard to get a district that I would be able to win and it was a battle royal between some of the other people who were in the legislature who wanted to run for Congress. But ultimately I was able to get the district that was one that I could win in. And it was during that time that I started going out with my present husband. He was my opponent's campaign manager. And....
POUSSAINT: [laughing] You don't make easy choices, do you?
BURKE: No. [laughing] He was going to talk me out of running. And [unintelligible] said, "Okay, you've got to talk her out of it." And so he was coming up...he would come up the Sacramento anyhow and so we start.... He invited me out to lunch and we talk about it, and then he invited me out to dinner and we keep talking about it, and finally I convinced him that I was the one that should run. [laughing] And he resigned from.... And I ran against someone who I had lived down the street from when I was growing up Billy Mills.
POUSSAINT: Was that hard?
BURKE: And my husband had worked for him.
POUSSAINT: How difficult was.... I mean, it's kind of like, you know, running against and opposing different members of your family in a way.
BURKE: I know, it really is.
POUSSAINT: How hard was that?
BURKE: Well...it wasn't that difficult. I mean I wanted to run for Congress, he wanted to run for Congress. I didn't take any less of him that he wanted to run. It was a matter who had the best campaign and who could raise the money
POUSSAINT: But it wasn't the kinds of really hostile, vitriolic campaigns...
BURKE: Oh, no. Not at all.
POUSSAINT: ...that people are familiar with now?
BURKE: Not at all. No. It was not vitriolic. He wasn't happy that I took his campaign manager, but.... [laughing] But my people weren't happy either because they'd say, "He's just.... Bill Burke is just trying to steal our campaign secrets. That's why he's taking you out."
POUSSAINT: [laughing] Well, that's flattering.
BURKE: [laughing] At any rate, I won the primary and on the night of the primary, I told everyone I was going to get married and two weeks later we set out telegrams to invite people to the wedding and we got married at the Bel Air Hotel.
POUSSAINT: Now, talker about a quandary. You're getting married and you're about to live on separate coasts.
POUSSAINT: How worried were you about that?
BURKE: I really didn't think about it, honestly. I don't know. But we both.... I mean he was...he knew I was running for Congress. He was supportive of me. He worked very hard and it was very difficult for him because I was running against the people he was close to, the people he had worked with. But we decided we would work it out and we would do it.
Running for U.S. Congress Part 2
POUSSAINT: Was there discussion of his coming to live in Washington?
BURKE: No, we were going to commute back and forth.
POUSSAINT: But he was basically....
BURKE: He was going to stay in Los Angeles and I would come back and forth every other week. And then he came to Washington every other week.
POUSSAINT: But for the most part, you were the one who was doing the commuting.
BURKE: No, we both commuted.
POUSSAINT: No? You both did?
POUSSAINT: Now, how difficult was this arrangement? You had to get used to a new city, a new legislature, and a new marriage? How'd you do it?
BURKE: Well, it was a very...it was exciting and wonderful. I enjoyed it. It was great. It was great. It was....
[BURKE and POUSSAINT laughing and talking over each other]
BURKE: Who wants to go to Washington by themselves? I mean who wants to go there, to Washington? It's a horrible place to have to be there by yourself, a woman by herself, there. But see, one of the things in this whole thing was, as soon as I won that primary and we got married, the first call I got was that they were trying to get someone to chair the Democratic convention and that they had gotten in a stalemate. The women wanted a woman and the African-Americans want a black to be co-chair of the Democratic convention, and they couldn't think of anyone, and so they decided that they would call me and if I would chair the Democratic convention. My husband was a different.... Also, you know, he was still on a different wing of the party than I was. He was Humphrey delegate. So we said yes and we were off to Miami, where I was the vice chair of the Democratic convention
POUSSAINT: Tell me about that. What was that like?
BURKE: It was wonderful. It was exciting. It was tough. I chaired that for 14 hours at one time.
POUSSAINT: And how, again, how were you received? I mean, you were a brand new face to most of these people.
BURKE: Oh, everybody was wonderful. Everyone was really great. And the only thing that was interesting was on the last night of the convention you know, we thought it was going to be short and I was going go to a party so I had on a halter and I put a white coat over it a halter dress, long dress they used to where in those days. And then, the TV people said, "That white jacket we can't work with it. You gotta take that off." I said, "I can't take the jacket off. I have a halter under it." They said, "Well, we can't. You gotta take the jacket off." I take the jacket off and now I'm sitting up there in a halter top [laughing] and some people said, these women were saying, "And she was there in a halter top..." [laughing] "...chairing the Democratic convention." [laughing] And one lady, who was Dorothy Bush, she was the secretary, said, "And I explained them, she didn't want to take her jacket off. They made her take her jacket off." [laughing]
POUSSAINT: [laughing] You know, those are the kinds of situations that a woman...
BURKE: Oh, that's right.
POUSSAINT: ...gets into.
BURKE: That's right.
POUSSAINT: ...that a man doesn't have to worry about.
BURKE: Never worries about.
POUSSAINT: Because you take your jacket off, you got a shirt on, you know. But how, again tell me about the transition into the U.S. Congress. What was that like for you?
BURKE: Well, I know you have to learn. Wherever you go, you have to learn the process. And it was a learning experience. I got good committees again, and I proceeded to get acclimated, and I believe that ultimately I really grasped the whole approach. And then of course I was fortunate I was elected to the Appropriations committee, which it was the first time they didn't go by seniority you were elected by your caucus. So I was elected to Appropriations that's how I got on the Appropriations Committee.
BURKE: Obviously I didn't have the seniority.
POUSSAINT: Right, yeah. Because when I read that that you had been on the Appropriations Committee, that was....
BURKE: And I wasn't very long there before I got pregnant. I was having a baby and I was commuting back and forth from Los Angeles
POUSSAINT: And you're going tell me again that that was exciting and fun.
BURKE: [smiling] It was not exciting and fun, but I was also doing speeches. But you know what I did it, you know. Again, members of Congress were fabulous. They were really great. You know, they gave me like a shower, you know, and my colleagues were great. The first time they'd ever had maternity leave. There'd never been a woman have a baby in Congress at that time. One of the Republicans made the motion to have, for the first time, a member of Congress have maternity leave.
POUSSAINT: Well, that's more ground-breaking that you were doing.
BURKE: And people were, you know everyone was.... I always say this she had 435 godfathers and godmothers. So it was great I had a great experience. I didn't leave Congress because I did not enjoy it. I enjoyed it very much. But by the time my daughter got to be old enough to go to school in first grade it just was going to be impossible, so I had to make some choices. And that's when I decided to come back to Los Angeles.
First African American Woman Legislator Part 1
POUSSAINT: It's as if you were on this roller coaster that just kept picking up steam and bad metaphor, but and the next thing you know you're in a situation that you did not initially sign up for being a full-time legislator, in a city that you were going to have to live in full-time.
BURKE: Well, I came home every weekend.
POUSSAINT: But still in all, and you were simultaneously making history as the first African-American woman.
BURKE: Right. There had not been a woman in the legislature .... There had only been one woman there was one woman in the California legislature at the time. She was the wife of someone who had passed away. But two of us got elected so there were three women an Asian woman, and this white woman who was there, and myself. We were the three women in the California legislature.
POUSSAINT: What was that like?
BURKE: Well, you know, I have to just say that I was very successful in the legislature. When I got up there, of course, Jesse Unruh had reconciled himself to the fact that he had been defeated in this, and so he could have just denied me everything. He represented the next adjacent district, incidentally. I represented up to Inglewood; he represented Inglewood. So his district was across street from mine. So he called me in, asked me about what committees wanted and I asked for the best committees, obviously and he said, "Well you know, I didn't...you aren't here by my choice, but you're here. But you're going to have to understand how we do business here. And you're right near my district, but I'll say this to you: if you go back and tell what you see here, you will live to regret it. Because we'll make up every kind of story against you that you can imagine.
BURKE: I said, "I'm not planning to go back and tell anything." [laughing, then getting serious] I got very good committees committees, you know, where you could raise money and everything else. And I you know, there were all kinds of stories. Like, I understand it was a big issue who was going to sit next to me you know, in the legislature and that, apparently, they had a meeting on that. And this man Leo Ryan, who died in Jonestown he volunteered and he was my seatmate.
POUSSAINT: Why was there such a to-do about who was going to sit next to you?
BURKE: They had never had a.... They had very few women no women but they had never had a black woman and they weren't sure who was going to sit next to a black woman. Every day, all day.
POUSSAINT: What did they think the color was going to rub off?
BURKE: [laughing] I don't know. So Leo Ryan agreed. He volunteered. And he was my seatmate and we got a lot along famously. Actually, once I got there, everybody was fine. And I got to know everyone, and you know. Willy Brown was there at that time, you know. It was fine. I'd known Willy forever.
First African American Woman Legislator Part 2
POUSSAINT: You make it sound almost easy, you know, and you...but, you know, breaking through the kinds of barriers and making the kind of history that you made, being the first African-American woman legislator, you know, being in a situation where there were powerful men who clearly didn't want you there. These are not easy things to cope with, and I think that a lot of young people male or female today would find it intimidating. What kinds of skills, internal training....
BURKE: Well first of all, you know, I went to a law school where I was the only black woman in the law school. There was one black man in the law school. I was twenty years old when I started to law school. I was young. There were people coming back from the ware Korean War and everything. And I went there and I think that as I developed skills as a lawyer, I developed, first of all, I primarily work with men. I went to school with them, I competed against them. I have no fear of competing against men. I'm more comfortable competing against men.
BURKE: Because that's what I know how to do, you know. [laughing] You know, and I have no.... And so I went to the legislature knowing that first of all, I know law, I know what I was going to try to accomplish. I knew it's sometimes difficult, but I had no question in my mind but that I would be able to do the job. I knew that I had constituents who were very supportive of me. And...this is what I do, you know. My skills were as a lawyer, and lawmaking is part of that.
POUSSAINT: There are very accomplished lawyers, male and female but you know, right now, talking about women who, faced with some of the situations that you've been faced with in the past in terms of attitudes and remarks and this, that, and the other thing, would have felt, you know, like hauling off and smacking somebody, you know, or cursing them out, or something but it sounds like you never....
BURKE: Well, I respond. You know, you can cut people to the knees with a few remarks. You don't have to curse them out. But there is always something that you can get them with. You know, I mean one thing men never like to be reminded that they're not as smart as you. If you want to quiet them down. [laughing]
POUSSAINT: [laughing] Uh huh.
BURKE: [seriously] And you just have to learn how to deal with circumstances. And I don't know, I mean, as I say, that was what I did. That's the kind of work that I had done. Those are my skills, and I feel very comfortable with my skills.
Racial Discrimination Part 1
POUSSAINT: Because you are black, there were places that you and your family could not live.
BURKE: That's right. And there were restaurants we couldn't go to, you know. But when you came downtown, there was only one restaurant that served everyone. That was Clifton's Cafeteria. So when we came to dinner and downtown, we would go to Clifton's Cafeteria. We could not eat in the department store in the tea room you know, other places like that. We went to the Chinese restaurants for dinner, when we had special dinners. So it was a matter that our life was very pleasant, but it was a segregated society in terms of many things as far as public accommodations.
POUSSAINT: So, for instance, you mentioned restaurants. There were certain restaurants you couldn't go in to.
BURKE: Right. You could go to any theater.
POUSSAINT: You could go to....
BURKE: Right, right.
POUSSAINT: What other kind of.... And obviously there were restrictions on where you could live.
BURKE: That's right, um hum.
POUSSAINT: And any other kinds of restrictions that you would face as a....
BURKE: Not that I was aware of at that time. Later, when I got older, I got out and was in high school and college, I then became aware of other kinds of restrictions.
POUSSAINT: Such as...?
BURKE: Well, I think the most difficult one that I remember was when I was.... I went to UCLA, and I was an AKA. We all got invitations to a dance studio hall, called Veloz and Yolanda. So a group of us decided we would go to this special sorority invitation to this dance studio, where I guess they were going to give you dance lessons and some of these things. We got there, and they said, "Oh, there must be some mistake." And so they looked at the invitation and said, "Oh yes, you did get this but would you come in the office?" So I think it was about six of us, we went into the office and they said, "Well, you know, we're very sorry but we don't serve blacks here at the studio. Even though we're having this for sororities, we never knew there would be any blacks coming." So I did sue, but I lost.
POUSSAINT: We were talking about the forms of segregation that you became aware of. So you were saying that there were, in the stores, for instance you could try things on.
POUSSAINT: You couldn't eat in the restaurant in the store...
POUSSAINT: And there were certain jobs that were...
BURKE: Right. I can remember when I was in high school, where they would send you out for jobs. I was sent to a department store for a job from my high school, and when I got there they told me that they did not hire blacks in that store. Now they were other stores that did hire blacks. There were stores that were maybe small stores, that were not downtown. But the downtown stores would hire elevator operators, maids but they did not hire black sales people when I was growing up.
POUSSAINT: And you were aware of those kinds of restrictions that they existed as you were growing up?
BURKE: Yes. Only when I went down to apply for a job. I wasn't aware during all the time that I was growing up.
POUSSAINT: Your parents never said anything to you?
BURKE: They weren't aware of it, probably.
BURKE: They probably weren't aware.
POUSSAINT: So, because sometimes you hear about parents, at a certain point, when they were raising a black child in this country years ago, they'd begin to explain to them the kinds of problems that they might run into because of their race, in order to protect them. So they'd say, "Don't go to this part of the city" or "You have to understand that you're not going to be able to do X, Y and Z." Your parent never...
POUSSAINT: ...talked to you about those kinds of limitations?
BURKE: No. In fact, I remember one of my early experiences. I was officer in the high school vice president of the student body and it was a student body where it was mostly white. There were two of us who were in this honor society. So the honor society was going on a...a place called Pops Willow Lake. They were going on Saturday to this recreation facility. I'd heard about it I'd never been, but I had heard about it and I just hadn't never been there. So we were to go to this recreation facility and we were to meet out in front of the school. When we got there and I didn't even know the other girl, she was a little older than I was when I got there, I sat there and she was sitting there. I said, "Where is everybody?" She said, "I don't know." She said, "Did you get the wrong date?" I said, "No, I couldn't have gotten the wrong date." After we sat a long time, she said, "Well let's go to my house." She lived closer to school than I did. We went to her house and her mother said, "The two of you were the only people sitting there?" And we said yes. She said, "Just a second. Let me get on the telephone." So she called this place and asked them if they allowed blacks to come here or Negroes, as they called it and they said, "No, we do not." So believe me and the vice principal had been the one who arranged this, and they had changed the time an hour early when they had found out that they didn't allow Negroes go. So on Monday morning I was right in the vice principal's office, and she said, "Yvonne, I would never want to hurt you. I didn't want to hurt you. Why, you know I would never want to embarrass you." I said, "Why didn't you call me? Why would you have me sitting out in front of the school by myself?" You know. But that was probably one of my first real experiences.
Racial Discrimination Part 2
BURKE: Now, I probably knew that when I was growing up we all went to Val Verde for holidays. I knew that at in Pasadena there was a park where they didn't let you swim except on certain days. I had heard that, you know, and I had heard that they were.... But in terms of my personal experience I mean, that was Pasadena. I lived in Los Angeles. And I lived where you went to the swimming pool. And no-one said, "This is a city swimming pool. You go in this pool." So this was my first real experience in being denied access to like a place that I thought was recreation. But let me say also, I knew that there was some beaches where blacks did not go. We would go to Santa Monica, we'd go to Zuma, we'd go to Playa del Rey. We would never go to Ocean Park, for instance.
POUSSAINT: Because that was known as....
BURKE: As a white beach, sort of.
POUSSAINT: And that you would not...you would be made to feel that you were not welcome.
BURKE: Right, right. But we would walk past there, back and forth and everything. We just didn't go on the sand. We'd go on the sand a little further down in Santa Monica. But I tell you, but it was like I was never refused, that you can't go up in the sand on Ocean Park, because we would go back and forth, because we went to the amusement park, and we'd pass by there, and we'd go back and forth. But that was my first experience with [unintelligible].
BURKE: I can trace my family probably to the mid-nineteenth century. I have my great-great grandfather's picture. He was a farmer in the territories Texas was a territory and I have his photo. I have the deed where he acquired his farm, which was in about the mid part no, the later part of the 19th century.
POUSSAINT: What part of Texas?
BURKE: Paris, Texas. Well, actually it was not Paris, Texas it was Roxton, Texas, which is a small community outside of Paris, Texas. Lamar County, Texas.
POUSSAINT: And so this was your mother's...on your mother's side of the family?
BURKE: No, it was my father's.
POUSSAINT: Your father's side of the family?
BURKE: Yes. It was my father's...his mother's father. So it's my great-grandfather. And he willed his land to his daughters, who all have different names. And one of his daughters was my grandmother. And my dad was the youngest of seventeen children and he was born in 1891.
POUSSAINT: Seventeen children?
BURKE: He was the youngest of 17 and he was born in 1891. That gives you an idea of how long back this goes. Our family is very unusual. There's a big jump between generations. I was like 40 when I had my daughter. My mother was 44 when she had me. And then he was the youngest of seventeen children, so his mother was considerably older than he was. So in three generations, it's like a hundred and some years.
POUSSAINT: That is amazing.
And so your father was actually, the law allowed...your great-great...great-grandfather the law allowed him to own the land.
BURKE: It was not the United States, remember?
POUSSAINT: That's right it was a territory. And so your father it came from that side of the family.
POUSSAINT: Tell me about him. Tell me about....
BURKE: Well my dad passed away at 95. And he came to Los Angeles in 1921 under very difficult circumstances. His family...he ran into some problems in Texas, so he had caught the first train and the first train went to Arizona. My mother was a teacher and she could not leave, so she had to stay in this little town even though my dad left and went to Arizona. When her contract was up she joined him in Arizona, and then they left Arizona after a while and they moved to California in 1921.
POUSSAINT: Now, what kind of problems did your father run into?
BURKE: Well, he ran into some problems with the owner of the store, because my mother was one of these people who believed you paid for everything. And in that economy, farmers charged everything. And then when they got their crops sold, they then would pay for the things they had purchased. So there was a big discussion and my mother had good books and she knew he didn't owe money and it became a very difficult thing, and so it became a lynch mob situation and my dad just caught the first train.
POUSSAINT: A lynch mob situation?
BURKE: Yes. Well, it wasn't a mob. It was just, they said, "We're going to get you. You think you're better than we are. You're married to a school teacher, and you think that you can do things your way, and you're not gonna do it." So he just had to run.
POUSSAINT: So he and your mother lived in an area that basically had black as farmers and workers, and then a few whites who were the....
BURKE: Well, actually it was whites and blacks were all, kind of, I think related and everything else.
POUSSAINT: So there wasn't that kind of strict racial divide?
BURKE: No, no, no, no, no. There was not that kind of divide.
POUSSAINT: Because a lot of...part of what is helpful for young people who listen to these stories is understanding that different black people came out of different backgrounds...
BURKE: Right, yes.
POUSSAINT: ...and that the model that I think most African-Americans have for when they think about the past, is they think about the strict southern model of rigid segregation and blacks as sharecroppers and whites as....
BURKE: No, I think it was rigid segregation to a point, but, I mean, my understanding is that like the owner of the store, he'd come and visit, you know, and came every Saturday to come and see if his mother had made bread. I mean, it was not a rigid segregated situation, even though I'm sure it was totally segregated in terms of schools and other things like that. But in terms of the way the farms there were black farmers, white farmers.