More than a mere talk show host, Oprah Winfrey is an award-winning actress and producer, a media mogul, and a philanthropist. Many people count her among the most influential women internationally. The larger-than-life success, fame, and fortune Oprah enjoys today did not come easy, however; she had much to overcome. But it’s clear to see how her childhood shaped the woman she would become.
Her story begins in 1950s-era Mississippi.
Oprah’s Early Life in Mississippi
Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her mother, Vernita Lee, was 18 at the time, and her father, Vernon Winfrey, was 20.
When Oprah was very young, Vernita moved north to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to find work. She planned to move her young daughter there after securing a job. In the meantime, Oprah stayed on a Mississippi farm with her grandmother Hattie Mae Lee.
Oprah’s grandmother encouraged her love of books by teaching her how to read at the age of 3. She started by reading the Bible and soon began speaking at her church. Later, she would recite memorized verses to her grandmother’s friends.
When Oprah turned 5, she started kindergarten. Because she already knew how to read and write, she was quickly moved into the first grade.
Oprah’s Move to Milwaukee
At 6 years old, Oprah’s grandmother became ill. The young girl was sent to live with her mother and half-sister, Patricia, in a Milwaukee boarding house. While Vernita worked as a maid cleaning houses, there were times when she had to rely on welfare to support the family. Her job kept her very busy, and what little free time she did have with her children was mostly spent with Patricia.
Another Move—to Nashville
After a little over a year in Milwaukee with her mother, Oprah was sent to live with her father and stepmother, Zelma, in Nashville, Tennessee. They were happy to have the 7-year-old living with them because they could not have children of their own. Finally, Oprah could enjoy the experience of having her very own bed and bedroom.
Oprah was enrolled in Wharton Elementary School and allowed to skip a grade once again. The third grader was thrilled that her parents took her to the library and valued her education. The family attended church regularly, and Oprah found more opportunities for public speaking, even at this young age.
Back to Milwaukee
After completing third grade, Vernon took his daughter back to Milwaukee to visit her mother. In the time since Oprah had left, Vernita had given birth to a baby boy named Jeffrey. The three children shared a room in the family’s two-bedroom apartment.
Vernon returned in the fall to take Oprah back to Nashville, but she chose to stay with her mother and began the fourth grade in Milwaukee. In her mother’s absence, Oprah turned to the television for company and had her first thoughts of being famous one day.
Oprah’s Experience With Sexual Abuse
Oprah was 9 years old when she was first sexually abused. While babysitting Vernita’s children, Oprah’s 19-year-old cousin raped her, took her out for ice cream, and told her to keep it a secret. She did, but this would not be the end.
Within the next few years, she would face more abuse from a family friend as well as an uncle. She kept silent about all of it for years.
Oprah Attends Nicolet High School
Gene Abrams, one of Oprah’s teachers at Lincoln Middle School in downtown Milwaukee, took notice of her love for reading. He took the time to help her transfer to an all-white school in Glendale, Wisconsin. One might expect that being the only African-American student at Nicolet High School was not easy. However, Oprah later said, “In 1968 it was real hip to know a Black person, so I was very popular.”
Back in Nashville and Pregnant
Oprah was unable to talk about her sexual abuse with her mother, and Vernita offered very little direction to the teenager. As a result, Oprah started to act out. She would skip school, date boys, steal money from her mother, and even run away. Vernita could not handle this behavior for long, so Oprah was sent back to Nashville to live with her father.
When she was just 14, Oprah realized that she was pregnant. She was able to hide this news from her parents until she was seven months along. She went into early labor on the same day she told her father about the pregnancy. She delivered a baby boy, who died within two weeks.
Oprah Gets Back on Track
A change came about for 16-year-old Oprah when she first read the autobiography of Maya Angelou, autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It transformed the teen’s outlook, and she later said, “I read it over and over. I had never before read a book that validated my own existence.” Many years later, Dr. Angelou would become one of Oprah’s dear friends.
This experience changed her outlook, and she began to get her life back on track. She concentrated on her education and returned to public speaking, a talent that would start to take her places. It began in 1970 when she won a speaking competition at the local Elks’ Club. The prize was a four-year college scholarship.
Oprah’s First Experience in Journalism
The next year, Oprah was selected to attend the 1971 White House Conference on Youth in Colorado. She represented Tennessee along with one other student. Upon her return, Nashville’s WVOL radio station requested an interview with the enthusiastic teenager.
This led to another opportunity when the station asked her to represent them in the Miss Fire Prevention beauty pageant. Oprah became the first African-American to win the competition.
Oprah’s first experience in journalism would come from this same radio station. After the beauty pageant, she accepted an offer to hear her voice on tape. The vivacious teenager was no stranger to public speaking, so it was only natural to accept, which led to a part-time position reading the news.
At just 17 years old, Oprah finished out her senior year of high school and remained working at the station. She had already secured a full college scholarship, and her future was bright. She would attend Tennessee State University, be crowned Miss Black Tennessee at 18, and go on to build a successful career in media.