Growing up, billionaire Oprah Winfrey had an estranged relationship with her mother, who was unsure who her birth father was. For most of her childhood, Oprah lived with her maternal grandparents and her supposed dad. She once said that she had no recollection of memories with her mom.
Hollywood media mogul, Oprah Winfrey, was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to parents Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey.
In October 1993, the American TV host revealed in a candid interview with Ebony Magazine that she had no memory of living with her mother as a child.
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey speaking during Oprah's 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus Tour at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. | Source: Getty Images
Oprah shared that she discovered while writing her book, "Oprah: An Autobiography," that her mom Lee lived with her for only the first four years of her life:
"I found out through doing this book that my mother lived in the house with me the first four years of my life, but I have no recollection of that. I see pictures of me with her, but as far as I am concerned, it’s somebody else’s child."
The author was initially raised by her maternal grandparents on a Mississippi farm before being sent to live with her mother in Milwaukee when she was nine.
Young Oprah had a fragile relationship with Lee, a maid with no time for her. Because she needed attention from her mom, she ran away from home and acted out, yearning to be loved.
Being a smart child did not work in her favor when it involved her mom, "I think she tried to stifle it," Oprah explained. So, as a resort, she became rebellious by being manipulative and acting out.
The TV personality wore butterfly-rimmed bifocals but felt they did not suit her; hence she told her mother that she wanted to try a different style. However, because Lee could not afford it, her daughter devised a plan to persuade her otherwise.
"I stayed home from school, broke my glasses into many pieces, and called the police after I pulled down the curtains and knocked over the lamps. I lay down on the floor and faked being unconscious and having amnesia," Oprah recounted.
She then made up a story saying someone had broken into their home, hit her on the head, and knocked off her glasses. While she thought it was humorous, her mother was livid and had had enough of her theatrics and stunts. That was when Lee called Vernon, telling him their child would be living with him.
Oprah later got sent to live with her father in Nashville when she was 14. During those years, she lost out on having a relationship with her mom.
However, the talk show host admitted that had Lee not sent her out to her dad, then her life would have taken an entirely different direction:
"If I hadn't been sent to my father, I would have gone in another direction. I could have made a good criminal. I would have used these same instincts differently."
OPRAH'S DAD AND STEPMOM WARMLY EMBRACED HER
Vernon Winfrey and his daughter, Oprah Winfrey, pictured arriving at the opening of "Charlie's War" at the Nashville Film Festival at the Green Hills Regal Cinema on May 2, 2003, in Nashville, Tennessee. | Source: Getty Images
When Oprah arrived in the world, her father was an Army officer, but he later opened a barbershop called Winfrey's Barbershop in Nashville, Tennessee.
Vernon revealed to the Washington Post in December 1986 that he learned of the birth of his daughter when he received a printed baby announcement in the mail with a note that read: "Send clothes!" soon after Oprah's birth.
After living with her mother, she was warmly welcomed by her dad and stepmother, Zelma Winfrey, who had endured a difficult pregnancy resulting in a miscarriage.
Even though Zelma desperately wanted to have a baby, she could not risk it, but her stepdaughter's arrival was, for them, a godsend. As a teenager, Oprah wore revealing clothes and heavy makeup, which did not sit well with her father.
Vernon and Zelma transformed her into a church-going girl, and he became a strict parent. The proud dad shared that he talked with his child about her approach to boys or men and told her that if she did not "hold up for yourself, the guys are not going to hold up for you."
Moreover, education was crucial in the Winfrey household, which meant good grades, so when Oprah started coming home from school with C's, Vernon began to worry. The TV producer remembered what her father said to her after she mentioned that having an average grade was perfectly fine:
"This is not acceptable. If you were a child who could only get C's, then that is all I would expect of you. I wouldn't demand any more from you than C's. But you are not. And so in this house, for you, C's are not acceptable."
That said, Zelma took Oprah to the library every two weeks, and she had to select five books to read and write book reports. However, there was some disconnection between her and Vernon.
That stemmed from speculations that Vernon was not her biological father, though he had been the only dad that she ever knew. Oprah described him and his wife as good people who took her in when she needed a home:
"Emotionally, I still feel disconnected. I feel like these were some nice people who took me in. Because my mother named several people [who could have been responsible for her pregnancy], and my father was one of them, he took responsibility because I could have been his."
It could mean that Vernon is not Oprah's birth father, but either way, she said he honored her by taking her in. The philanthropist revealed that she and Vernon never had a DNA test to check if he was her birth father.
Throughout her life, people have insinuated that Vernon may not be her biological dad. Oprah stressed that even so, he is the only father she had ever known as he stepped up when he did not have to. She added that Vernon saved her life when she needed saving, but they were not bonded.
In addition, Oprah expressed gratitude to Vernon, saying that when he decided to care for her, her life changed for the better:
"When my father took me, it changed the course of my life. He saved me. He knew what he wanted and expected. He would take nothing less."
OPRAH LOST CONTACT WITH HER MOM FOR SEVEN YEARS
Oprah lived with Vernon and Zelma until she was old enough, eventually becoming a television sensation. Between that and falling pregnant at age fourteen, she had not seen nor heard from her mother for seven odd years.
However, when Lee finally did show up, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" host said she failed to feel anything about her reappearance. "When she shows up, I'm like, well, what am I supposed to feel? What's a daughter supposed to feel like?" she asked.
The mother-daughter duo had an estranged relationship since Oprah's birth, leading her to state that her mom "carried me in shame."
In a 2011 book, an insider disclosed that the "The Color Purple" star had a strained relationship with Lee but had always felt closer to her now-late stepmother, Zelma.
Even so, including the fact that she disliked her mom and refrained from sharing her contact numbers with her, the source revealed that Oprah had taken good care of Lee.
She once reached out to her and her family so they could go and spend a weekend at the log cabin at her house, where she was more like a therapist. Oprah referenced her radio show, saying she could not continue telling listeners to forgive while she could not do so herself:
"There was a lot of pain, a lot of stuff to let out. But I did it so that we could go on and live with each other as women people."
Despite that, the actress still felt a sense of responsibility to her parents and took good care of them financially as she learned from the Bible that she had to honor and respect them.
LEE'S DEATH AND HER DAUGHTER'S HEARTFELT WORDS
Lee sadly passed away in November 2018, and a family spokesperson released a statement to ABC that read: "The family of Vernita Lee is saddened to share of her passing on November 22, 2018, at her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was 83 years old."
Lee is survived by two daughters, Oprah, and Patricia, four grandchildren, Alisha, Chrishaunda, Aquarius, and Andre, including four great-grandchildren, Trinity, Donovan, Chai, and Jaxon. She was predeceased by her son, Jeffrey, who died in 1989, and another daughter, Patricia, in 2003. Lee's family asked for memorial donations in her name to be made to Feeding America.
Following the news of her departure, Oprah took to her Instagram and shared a family group photo where Lee was centered, seated behind a table. She thanked fans for their compassionate words and condolences in their time of grief, adding it gave her and her family comfort to know that Lee lived a good life and was now at peace.
In April 2019, Oprah revealed in an essay for "O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine" that she found it hard to say something meaningful to her dying mother in her final days of life.
The "What I Know For Sure" author acknowledged that she and her mom had a complicated relationship. However, after her friend, gospel singer Wintley Phipps sang an a cappella to Lee over FaceTime and prayed for the family to find tranquillity amid a difficult time, it dawned on Oprah on what to say.
Vernon Winfrey pictured cutting hair on Roland Jones at his barbershop in Nashville, Tennessee. | Source: Getty Images
"I know it must have been hard for you as a 17-year-old pregnant, scared girl in Mississippi. Many people no doubt told you to get rid of that baby. To have an abortion or give me away. But you didn't. And for that, I thank you. I know you did the best you could with what you had. And for that, I thank you. And look how it's all turned out," said Oprah to her mother.
Moreover, when speaking about having a male figure in one's life and some of her fondest memories from her childhood in June 2021, Oprah revealed that her father was still a barber in Nashville, Tennessee.
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