Curious about OprahWinfrey’s early life? The Mississippi-born media superstar, talk show personality, actress, and philanthropist was born on January 29, 1954 to Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey. It was just the beginning.
Oprah was born into poverty to a then teenage single mother (Vernita). Before her award winning show The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was syndicated from 1986-2011, before she became the richest African American in the world, and before being touted as one of the most influential women in the world, she lived a life of poverty, abuse, and neglect.
Oprah Winfrey’s Early Life
Oprah Winfrey’s early life was one of turmoil and constant change. Just after Oprah was born, her mother moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for employment while Oprah stayed behind with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee. It was under her grandmother’s care that Oprah discovered her love for books. She was already learning to read at the tender age of 3. This early skill meant that when she started school at the age of 5, she had already learned to read and write. Shortly after, her grandmother became sick and Oprah was reunited with her mother in Wisconsin. At this point, Vernita Lee was working as a maid and at times relied on welfare to support the family, which had grown to include Patricia, Oprah’s half sister.
A year later, more change came for a young Oprah. She was sent to live with her father and step-mother in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there that Oprah had her very own bedroom and bed for the first time, though she spent much of her time at the library and at church. During a visit to see her mother, Oprah learned that her mother had another child by the name of Jeffrey. When given the choice to live with her mother or father, she chose her mother and started school that year back in Wisconsin.
As her mother was frequently absent from her life, she relied on Oprah’s teenage cousin to care for Oprah and the other children. This same cousin who was there to care for her reportedly sexually abused Oprah for the first time. Her cousin was 19 at the time. Oprah was 9. Sadly, this was not the end of the abuse, as she was again abused by a family friend and then an uncle years later all under a veil of silence.
While at an inner city school in Milwaukee, one of her teachers recognized her interest in books and helped facilitate a transfer to a higher quality school, which happened to be an all white campus in Glendale, Wisconsin.
At 14 years old, without parents to guide her and despite the bright intellectual curiosity her former teacher saw in her, Oprah began missing school, stealing, and dating. This rebellious behavior led to Oprah being sent yet again to live with her father in Nashville. Soon after her arrival, Oprah discovered she was pregnant. This was news she kept secret until she was nearly 7 months pregnant. Sadly, the baby boy only lived for a few weeks before passing away.
This traumatic experience was the jolt that Oprah needed to get back on track, and it was after reading the autobiography of Maya Angelou that she began to take proactive steps toward a better future. She started focusing heavily on education and speaking in public. She even won a speaking competition that won her a college scholarship, which she used to attend Tennessee State University. It was there that she earned a degree in Speech and Performing Arts.
The rest, as they say, is history.
See photos of Oprah Winfrey’s early life photos here.
See more about Oprah Winfrey’s early life and more on her adult life here.