BURKE, LILLIAN W. (2 August 1915 – 27 March 2012) was a pioneer, the first black woman judge in Ohio and the first to sit on the Ohio Industrial Commission, the highest state position ever held by a black woman at that time. She was born in Thomaston, Georgia; her parents were George P. and Ozella (Davidson) Walker. Her family moved to Pittsburgh where she was educated in its public schools.
In 1947, she graduated from Ohio State University with a teaching degree and then taught as a Cleveland public schoolteacher while attending CLEVELAND-MARSHALL LAW SCHOOL (later merged into CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY). In 1948, she married Ralph L. Burke. She received her law degree in 1951.
Burke rose through Republican ranks from precinct committeeman in 1958 and ward leader in 1959, to membership on the Republican Executive Committee and then secretary of the Republican Central committee in 1965. She ran and lost a race for state representative in 1962 but in 1963 was appointed an assistant attorney general.
In 1966, Governor James Rhodes appointed Burke to the Ohio Industrial Commission and in June 1969, to the Cleveland Municipal Court to fill the unexpired term of Judge Blanche Krupansky. In November, Burke won the seat by defeating Cleveland school board president Democrat Daniel O. Corrigan, despite his politically powerful name. And despite her being a Republican – and an African American woman –Burke kept the seat until her retirement in 1987. She was chosen president of the Greater Cleveland Municipal Judges Association in 1976 and helped to establish a program that offered counseling and training for first offenders. In 1981 and 1986, she served as the court’s administrative judge, in 1986 defeating CARL B. STOKES to keep the job.
In June 1984, Burke sued the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for $33 million on the grounds that it had deprived her of her civil and constitutional rights by damaging her reputation. Her charges stemmed from a four-year FBI undercover operation intended to uncover corruption at the Municipal Court. The FBI had unwittingly hired a black woman claiming to be Burke and a black man claiming to be Judge Charles W. Fleming. Both then ostensibly took bribes from FBI agents, channeled through a former court employee who actually pocketed the money. The imposters were ultimately discovered, and since both judges were black, the FBI was charged with racism, ridiculed by local newspapers, and rebuked by a U.S. House subcommittee. Burke’s suit for damages was dismissed by a federal judge in June 1985.
In August 1985, Burke presided over a high-profile case in which a member of the Free South Africa Coalition was charged with trespassing during a demonstration against the South African consulate. The honorary consul resigned. Burke dismissed the changes.
Burke served on the Ohio Commission on the Status of Women and on the board of directors of the CLEVELAND MUSIC SCHOOL SETTLEMENT. She established scholarships for the Music School Settlement and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, both administered by the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION.
Burke was named a Woman of Achievement by the Inter-Club Council in 1974 and a Greater Cleveland Woman of Achievement in 2003 by the YOUNG WOMEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION. Cleveland-Marshall College of Law awarded her an honorary doctor of laws degree in 2011.
Burke had one son, Bruce Walker. She is buried at LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.