Oprah Winfrey is undeniably one of the most powerful women in America, if not the entire world. After all, she has built a multi-billion-dollar empire from nothing. The star has also been credited with creating a new brand of national discourse – one that places emphasis on emotion and doesn’t separate the private from the public. So when Oprah suffered a tragedy during the Thanksgiving period of 2018, it naturally didn’t take long for the event to make worldwide news.
Oprah’s truly inspirational story is one of rags to riches. She was born in 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to Vernita Lee, who was just a teenager at the time. Young Oprah was thus raised for a time by her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, who was so poverty-stricken that she couldn’t always afford clothes for her young ward. As a result, Oprah was frequently forced to dress herself in potato sacks.
And yet even at a young age, Oprah’s desire to engage with others shone through. For instance, she would perform pretend interviews with whomever and whatever she could find – be they animals or inanimate dolls. Oprah was already such a talented speaker as a child, in fact, that the church congregation nicknamed her “the Preacher.” But despite the gifts it had given her, life would not prove easy for Oprah.
Besides her destitute family life, Oprah also had to deal with racial segregation and prejudice. During the era in which she was born – the 1950s – racist attacks were still not uncommon for black Americans, particularly those living in the South. To put things in perspective, Oprah was a baby when Rosa Parks made history by kicking off the Montgomery bus boycott.
And yet despite such challenging times, Hattie Mae nevertheless encouraged Oprah to pursue her talents. But although Oprah’s grandmother – who was a maid – helped her a lot, Hattie Mae didn’t have big dreams for Oprah’s future, and she certainly couldn’t have imagined the success that her granddaughter would ultimately achieve. They were, after all, trapped by a society that denied them the luxury to dream.
“[Hattie Mae] used to say, ‘I hope you get some good white folks that are kind to you,’” Oprah recalled in 2007, while accepting an honorary degree at Howard University. “I regret that she didn’t live past 1963 to see that I did grow up and get some really good white folks – working for me.”
Yet before Oprah could reach that point in her story, she would suffer through some truly terrible events. For instance, from the age of nine she suffered abuse at the hands of relatives for years. And in 2012 she spoke to David Letterman at Ball State University, detailing one particularly harrowing occasion.
“I went to a well to get some water and carry it in a bucket. And I was playing in the water with my fingers, and my grandmother had seen me out the window, and she didn’t like it,” Oprah explained to Letterman. “She whipped me so badly that I had welts on my back.”
And yet there was even worse to come. At age 14 Oprah became pregnant – a consequence, she has said, of the years of abuse she suffered. In fact, the young teen was so desperate to terminate the pregnancy that she attempted to consume detergent. But she did ultimately give birth – although sadly the baby died after being in the world for just two weeks. Unsurprisingly, the tragedy has stayed with Oprah.
In fact, during a December 2015 speech in Melbourne, Australia, Oprah gave a name to the baby she’d lost. “I did an interview with a reporter before I came to Australia, and she said, ‘You should name the baby son who died,’” Oprah revealed. “So I have named him; I had a little boy named Canaan.” And the name, she explained, means “new land, new life.”
But following this tragedy at 14 years old, Oprah gradually began to get her life on track. For one, she left her mother’s home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and went to live with her military father, Vernon Winfrey, in Nashville, Tennessee. And under his strict charge, Oprah had to read a book every two weeks and compose a report on each one. As she grew older, then, her life began to take a much more positive turn.
After being named “Most Popular Girl” in high school, Oprah won a scholarship to Tennessee State University and began studying communication. However, she had already had considerable experience in that field. During her high school years, she had begun working as a newsreader at the African-American radio station WVOL. And she kept working there even when she went to college.
Once Oprah had left education, she continued her involvement with journalism. She began working for Nashville’s WLAC-TV, making her the city’s first woman of color to become a newsreader – as well as the station’s youngest. Then in 1976 she landed a co-anchor role on the six o’clock news at Baltimore’s WJZ-TV. And it was there that Oprah’s employers noted something different about her: she had huge empathy for the subjects of her reports.
After making waves early on in her career, then, Oprah’s rise to success was truly incredible. In 1983 she ventured to Chicago, Illinois, to host struggling talk show AM Chicago. But such was Oprah’s charm and talent that in just a few months, the program rose from the bottom of the city’s ratings list to the very top. And then she had an encounter that would change everything.
During the mid-1980s, Oprah enjoyed a couple of dates with famous film critic Roger Ebert. And after a particular trip to the movies, Ebert reportedly advised Oprah to allow King World to syndicate her Chicago talk show; he also predicted how much money this decision would make her. It was a risky move, but it absolutely paid off, and AM Chicago became The Oprah Winfrey Show – a name that would go down in TV history.
And on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah’s hosting style was something totally new. She treated her interview subjects like her friends, and she wasn’t afraid to reveal intimate details to both them and her audience. But above all, Oprah was relatable – a quality that got TV critics on her side, too. And as her success – and wealth – continued to skyrocket, Oprah also became famous for her generosity. On one occasion, for instance, she gifted new cars to everyone in her audience.
Moreover, Oprah was refreshingly outspoken about political matters on her show. She talked openly about LGBTQ issues, for example, in an era when they were barely mainstream. In fact, she played a part in Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out story – a pivotal moment for queer representation. Oprah portrays the therapist in arguably the most memorable episode of sitcom Ellen: the one where DeGeneres’ character announces that she’s gay. And DeGeneres also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on the same day that the Ellen episode aired in 1997.
But Oprah’s talents stretch beyond talk-show hosting, too. For instance, she’s had a lot of success in the acting world. Her first movie role was as Sofia in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film The Color Purple, for which she received an Oscar nomination. And in the last two decades she’s appeared in or lent her voice to a lot of other major films, including 2010’s The Princess and the Frog and 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time.
So, Oprah undeniably boasts an astonishing list of achievements – the kind of which most people can only dream. But one of her perhaps less-celebrated accomplishments is the reconciliation with her mother, Vernita. Yes, despite all of the suffering that Oprah had experienced throughout her childhood and adolescence, the TV personality was able to rebuild a relationship with her mother.
“My mother didn’t have the time [for me]. She worked every day as a maid,” Oprah told The Washington Post in 1986. “I was smart, and my mother – because she didn’t have the time for me, I think – tried to stifle it. If I hadn’t been sent to my father, I would have gone in another direction. I could have made a good criminal.”
And in an interview with HuffPost in 2015, Oprah recalled moving back into the care of her mother after having lived with her grandmother for the first six years of her childhood. “I suddenly land in a place that’s completely foreign to me. I don’t know anybody. I don’t really even know my mother,” she explained. Worse, she had been told that she wouldn’t even be allowed to sleep inside the same house as her parent.
“There was a little foyer/porch before you actually got inside the house. I was put outside to sleep there,” Oprah revealed. “My mother was boarding with this very light-skinned black woman who could have passed for white… I could tell instantly when I walked in the room that she didn’t like me. It was because of the color of my skin.”
And yet Oprah decided to put such difficult memories behind her. In 1993 she opened up about her reconciliation with Vernita to Ebony magazine. “The period between the time I had a child until I became a TV star, I didn’t see or hear from my mother,” she said. “That was seven years. So when she shows up, I’m like, ‘What am I supposed to feel? What’s a daughter supposed to feel like?’”
But being a Baptist, Oprah decided to follow her faith. “What you owe your parents is honor and respect because that’s what the Bible tells me,” she told Ebony. “And so I have provided a great economic life for both my parents.” However, in 2010 the talk show host uncovered a secret that could very well have had the potential to threaten her relationship with Vernita.
You see, Oprah discovered that Vernita had given birth to another child, Patricia, whom she had given up for adoption. Oprah already knew about two other half-siblings – both of whom are dead – but this revelation came as a surprise. And yet in a 2011 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah told Vernita, “You can let this shame go.”
It seems, then, that Oprah and her mother have had a complicated, difficult, but ultimately loving relationship. Unfortunately, however, it came to an end on Thanksgiving Day in 2018 when Vernita passed away at her home in Milwaukee, aged 83. And although Oprah wasn’t with her mother when she died, she had already said goodbye.
“I came back to Milwaukee. I sat with my mother,” Oprah told People in December 2018. “I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to make it. Do you think you’re going to make it?’ She said, ‘I don’t think I am.’ I had a conversation with her about what that felt like – what it felt like to be near the end.”
Of course, it was an extremely painful time for Oprah. “I waited for a way to say what I wanted to say,” she told People. “The next morning I woke up, and I was actually praying for, ‘What is a way I can have this conversation about the end? How do I close it?’ I just thought, ‘What is the truth for me? What is it that I need to say?’”
And eventually, Oprah found a way to express what she had been feeling. “What I said was, ‘Thank you. Thank you, because I know it’s been hard for you,” Oprah recalled. “It was hard for you as a young girl having a baby in Mississippi – no education, no training, no skills. Seventeen, you get pregnant with this baby. Lots of people would have told you to give that baby away. Lots of people would’ve told you to abort that baby.”
Oprah continued, “‘You didn’t do that. I know that was hard. I want you to know that no matter what, I know that you always did the best you knew how to do. And look how it turned out.’ Then I told her, ‘You should go in peace… What you want it to be, what I want it to be, is as peaceful as possible.”
And Patricia, Oprah’s half-sister whom she hadn’t known about for years, was also present at that time. “In that moment, my sister was in the room. My mother’s had real problems since my sister came back from the adoption,” Oprah said. “My sister said, ‘Please forgive yourself, because I’ve forgiven you for giving me away.’”
“It was just really sacred and beautiful,” Oprah told People. “I would say to anybody – and if you live long enough, everybody goes through it – say the things that you need to say while the people are still alive, so that you are not one of those people living with regret about what you would’ve, should’ve, could’ve said.”
And Oprah tried her hardest to make her mother’s last days perfect, including organizing a special surprise for her. The star explained, “[Gospel singer] Wintley Phipps is a really great friend of mine. I thought, ‘What if I call Wintley and got him to sing ‘Precious Lord’ to her?’ I called Wintley and asked him to FaceTime. He sang ‘Precious Lord’ live to her from his kitchen table.”
Vernita’s death, Oprah added to People, had been caused by diabetes and kidney failure. “Three years ago she knew she should’ve had dialysis, and she didn’t want to do it. It was her choice not to do it,” she explained. “I said at the time, ‘You should do whatever your body tells you to do. Nobody’s going to force you to do what you don’t want to do.’”
TMZ was the first media outlet to confirm the news of Vernita’s death. “The family of Vernita Lee are saddened to share of her passing on November 22, 2018, at her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” a spokesperson reportedly said. Also included in the statement was the fact that Vernita’s funeral had already taken place.
And, unsurprisingly, many of Oprah’s famous friends sent condolences to the star after hearing the news. One of them was Jimmy Fallon, who had also lost his mother in 2017. Oprah told People, “I got a really lovely note just yesterday from Jimmy Fallon, saying, ‘My mom’s up there, too, so if your mom has a party, tell her to call my mom.’”
And Oprah made sure to thank her fans as well. “Thank you all for your kind words and condolences regarding my mother Vernita Lee’s passing,” she wrote on Instagram on November 26, alongside a picture of her family. “It gives our family great comfort knowing she lived a good life and is now at peace.”
Meanwhile, although Vernita wasn’t often in the public eye, she did nevertheless carry out interviews from time to time, during which she occasionally spoke with pride about her famous child. In 2007 Carole Meekins of Today’s TMJ4 visited Vernita’s home, which was apparently filled with mementos and photographs taken throughout Oprah’s career. “What do you think is the biggest gift you’ve given your daughter?” the interviewer asked.
“I loved [Oprah] the way that she loves people now,” Vernita answered. What’s more, she singled out her proudest moment in her daughter’s career: watching her star in The Color Purple. And, finally, she shared how she’d managed to cope with the difficulties in her life, which include the deaths of two children. “I am a Christian lady, and if you’re a Christian person, it helps you to deal with situations like that,” she said.
Without a doubt, then, Oprah has faced a tremendous amount of challenges in her life, but she has remained loving, compassionate and forgiving throughout them all. And a tweet she sent out in May 2012 now stands as a moving tribute to the person who brought her into the world. On that occasion, Oprah wrote, “Thank you to my mother Vernita Lee for doing the best she knew and could do in raising me.”