Orpah Gail Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, a small town in central Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. The baby's name, chosen by her great-aunt Ida, honored a figure in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Somewhere along the way, Orpah became Oprah. There are two versions of how this happened. According to one, no one could pronounce Orpah, and it became Oprah. Another version says that a nurse or midwife misspelled the name on the birth certificate. In either case, Oprah stuck.
Oprah Winfrey Was Born Here
Kosciusko, Mississippi, is Winfrey's hometown. (Locals pronounce it Ka-zee-ESS-ko.) It is the seat of Attala County in a rural part of central Mississippi. About seven thousand people live there. It sits on the historic Natchez Trace Road, which in America's early days of settlement was an important road between Nashville, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi. Kosciusko is named for a Polish general and engineer who helped America by serving on George Washington's staff during the Revolutionary War.
After she left as a young child, Winfrey never returned to live in Kosciusko. However, the town is proud of its famous daughter. Among other things, it has named a road in her honor. Oprah Winfrey Road, formerly Buffalo Road, passes by both the church she attended and her birthplace (a house that has since been torn down).
Nothing about her birth indicated the baby's extraordinary future. In fact, writer Paul Harris asserts, "Oprah's birth was spectacularly inauspicious."7 This was true for several reasons.
First of all, Oprah was African American. The lives of black people, especially those in the Deep South, would change dramatically as the civil rights movement took root in later years. In 1954, however, the prospects for African Americans in Mississippi were grim. For a female, they were especially bad.
Also, Oprah's parents were not married. They were not even a steady couple. And they were young: Oprah's mother, Vernita Lee, was eighteen when she gave birth. Her father, Vernon Winfrey, was a twenty-year-old military man at Camp Rucker, Alabama.
When Vernon finished his term of service, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and worked as a janitor and a dishwasher. He apparently had not even known that Vernita Lee was pregnant. It appears that he learned about Oprah when he received a newspaper clipping announcing the birth. Attached was a note asking for clothes.
For her first years, Oprah lived with her mother and grandparents, Hattie Mae and Earlist Lee, on their small farm. It was a modest place, without electricity or indoor plumbing and with only a few animals. Oprah's family was so poor that she wore overalls made from potato sacks.
When Oprah was a few years old, the cotton mills in town closed down. This meant that jobs were scarce. Vernita Lee heard she could find work cleaning houses in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She moved there and left Oprah with Hattie Mae and Earlist.
There were few other children in Oprah's life and no close neighbors. Earlist, also called Earless, was little more than a distant, scary presence to young Oprah. She later recalled, "I feared him. . . . I remember him always throwing things at me or trying to shoo me away with his cane."8
So the strongest presence in Oprah's life was Hattie Mae. She was strict and not afraid to whip Oprah with a switch for misbehaving or avoiding chores. This punishment was so rough and so frequent that today it would be considered child abuse. In that time and place, however, it was simply the way things were done.
But Hattie Mae could also be supportive. Winfrey says that her grandmother taught her the importance of hard work, religious faith, and self-confidence: "I am what I am because of my grandmother; my strength, my sense of reasoning, everything. All of that was set by the time I was six years old. I basically am no different now from what I was when I was six."9
Another gift Hattie Mae gave young Oprah was an early ability to read. Books became her refuge from life's hardships and disappointments. They remained a lifelong source for learning, inspiration, and imagination.
Hattie Mae also recognized that Oprah was a champion talker. (The older woman once remarked that her granddaughter was onstage from the time she learned to talk.) Hattie Mae encouraged the girl to give readings and presentations at their church, Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church.
"God Don't Mess with His Children"
Winfrey's grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, took her regularly to her Baptist church and taught young Oprah lessons from the Bible. These lessons were not always straight, word for word from the Bible. They were Bible lessons as Lee interpreted them. Nonetheless, the girl learned them well. Winfrey recalls:
I remember when I was four, watching my grandma boil clothes in a huge iron pot. I was crying, and Grandma asked, "What's the matter with you, girl?" "Big Mammy," I sobbed, "I'm going to die someday." "Honey," she said, "God don't mess with his children. You gotta do a lot of work in your life and not be afraid. The strong have got to take care of the others."
I [later] came to realize that my grandmother was loosely translating from the epistle [to the] Romans in the New Testament—"We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak" (Romans 15:1). Despite my age, I somehow grasped the concept. I knew I was going to help people, that I had a higher calling, so to speak.
Quoted in LaTonya Taylor, "The Church of O," Christianity Today, April 1, 2002. www.christianitytoday.com/ct/article_print.html?id=8491.
Oprah enjoyed the attention from these first speaking engagements. She says, "It was a way of getting love."10But there was a downside: Other kids cruelly nicknamed her "the Preacher." Still, it was worth it. Today, Winfrey calls her early experiences in church the "beginning of my broadcasting career. I loved being in front of people, dressed up, and being able to say my piece."11
When Oprah was about four, Earlist died. Hattie Mae, a widow in poor health, found it increasingly difficult to raise Oprah. Vernita Lee returned and took her daughter to Milwaukee.
The cold northern city was a huge change from slow-paced southern farm life. Oprah's home now was in a cramped boardinghouse apartment with Lee and a second child—Oprah's half sister, Patricia.
Oprah felt like an outsider there. Lee was often gone—she worked long hours as a housemaid—and when she was home she was tired. Any attention she did have for her children was focused on little Patricia.
But there were bright spots in Milwaukee for Oprah. One was the realization that she was ahead of other kids. When she started kindergarten, she could already read. She wrote her teacher a note, politely pointing out that she did not belong there. The teacher agreed, and Oprah skipped a grade.
Lee had trouble raising two kids by herself. When Oprah was eight, Lee contacted Vernon Winfrey in Nashville and asked him to take care of the girl for a while. Vernon, now married and working as a barber, agreed. He came for her in the summer of 1962.
Life in Nashville was another big adjustment. Vernon was essentially a stranger, and Oprah did not know his wife, Zelma, at all. But they were happy to have her as they had no children of their own. And their modest brick house was wonderful compared to the grim boardinghouse; for the first time, Oprah had a bedroom to herself.
Vernon and Zelma were supportive of Oprah, but they were also strict. They made her study hard, and they took her regularly to their church, the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. She thrived in Nashville, skipping another grade, fourth, and further developing her reputation for public speaking.
After Oprah spent a year in Nashville, Lee brought her back to Milwaukee. A third child, Jeffrey—Oprah's half brother—was now part of her family.
Vernon was not happy to see Oprah go. He worried that her life in Milwaukee was unhealthy. "We had brought her out of that atmosphere," he commented later. "I knew it was not good for her, being in that environment again."12
Why Lee wanted Oprah back is not clear since she continued to ignore the girl and pay attention to her younger siblings. Lee also ridiculed Oprah's love of books. Still, reading became Oprah's refuge from this unhappy life. She later remarked, "I don't know why my mother ever decided she wanted me. She wasn't equipped to take care of me. I was just an extra burden on her."13
This life was unhappy enough for the girl, but it got far worse. Beginning when she was nine, Oprah was sexually molested. The first to abuse her was a nineteen-year-old cousin. Afterward, he took the terrified girl out for ice cream and made her promise to keep it secret.
Later, two more men assaulted her: an uncle and a family friend. She was again forced to keep silent. They told her that the abuse happened because there was something wrong with her, and that she could never tell anyone.
Oprah, not knowing otherwise, believed them. She kept the secret for many years, and it powerfully affected her life. She says now, however, that there was a silver lining. After she finally made the abuse public, she became a tireless crusader to protect other children from similar damage. Perhaps, she says, others will be spared.
Oprah's life had few bright spots during this period. One was the rare chance to see African American artists on television, such as the night Oprah saw beautiful and graceful black women on a top-rated variety program. "The first time I saw Diana Ross and the Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show," she recalls, "it changed my life."14 Another inspiration was Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Oprah says, "It was the first time I thought, 'I can do that.'"15
Her academic life, at Lincoln Middle School in Milwaukee's inner city, was also generally good. Oprah did not have many friends, but she got excellent grades. A concerned teacher, Eugene Abrams, enrolled her in a program to help gifted but underprivileged students. This helped Oprah earn a spot at a prestigious school, Nicolet High School in suburban Glendale.
Academically, Nicolet was a step up, but it came at a price. To get there, Oprah had to take three buses each way. Many of her fellow passengers were African Americans like her mother, headed to menial jobs in the homes of white suburbanites.
Furthermore, Oprah was the only nonwhite student in a school of two thousand. She did make some friends, especially since by then the civil rights movement was flourishing. It was fashionable among liberal white students to have a black friend.
But being around these affluent students was often painful. Oprah recalls, "I was feeling a sense of anguish, because [the] life that I saw those children lead was so totally different from what I . . . saw when I took the bus home with the maids in the evening."16
As she grew into her teen years, the strong forces in Oprah's life came into opposition. She was smart and had a powerful will to succeed, but she was also battling neglect, poverty, and abuse. Not surprisingly, she started to rebel and act out.
On one occasion, she faked a robbery in her house because she wanted new glasses. She smashed the cheap, ugly ones her mother had bought and tried to make it seem that this had been part of the robbery.
More seriously, she briefly ran away from home and experimented with sex and drugs. In desperation, Oprah's mother took her for an interview to be committed to a home for wayward girls in 1968. Oprah recalls, "I remember going to the interview process, where they treat you like you're already a known convict, and thinking to myself: How in the world is this happening to me? I was fourteen, and I knew that I was a smart person. I knew I wasn't a bad person, and I remember thinking: How did this happen? How did I get here?"17
There was a waiting period before she could be put into the home. During this time, Lee contacted Vernon Winfrey, and he took Oprah back to Nashville.
But Oprah had a secret: She was pregnant. She kept her condition secret from Vernon and Zelma as long as she could. When she did give birth, to a son, he was premature and died after just a few weeks.
As before, Vernon and Zelma were strict but supportive with Oprah. They enacted a curfew, made her write a weekly book report, and had her memorize twenty new vocabulary words a week. Report cards with all A's and regular attendance at the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church were required. And she had to work part time in the grocery store Vernon had next to his barbershop.
Oprah hated selling popsicles and penny candy, but overall the discipline and structure of her new home worked. She stayed out of trouble, dressed demurely, and wore her hair in a conventional flip. She often went by her more common middle name, Gail. And she blossomed into an honors student at East Nashville High School.
Oprah has often credited Vernon, by all accounts a deeply responsible and moral man, for getting her back on track. In later years there has been speculation that he may not be her biological father. But she says it does not matter. He took her in and raised her, and she has always proudly called him her father.
There was another enormous influence on Oprah during this period. Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a beautifully written but unsparing account of the poet's struggles with poverty and sexual abuse. Winfrey says the book changed her life because Angelou's experiences were so close to her own: "I thought she was talking about my own life."18
Meanwhile, Oprah was developing her gift for oratory. She spoke publicly in a variety of settings. Often, her speeches were based on sermons. Deacon Carl Adams, a founding member of the Winfrey family's church, recalls, "She could just about hold you spellbound. She would always give something that was fulfilling spiritually."19
When she was sixteen, a pastor from Los Angeles heard her and asked her to come speak at his church. He paid her five hundred dollars—a huge sum of money for the young woman. On that trip, she saw Hollywood for the first time, and she swore it would not be her last trip there.
Oprah continued to excel at school. She was one of only two students from Tennessee selected to attend a national conference on youth. As a senior, she was voted "Most Popular Girl," and she dated the "Most Popular Boy," Anthony Otey. She joined the speech team and placed second in the nation in dramatic interpretation.
During her senior year she also was vice president of the student body. Her slogan was a pun on Nashville's famous country—music radio show, the Grand Ole Opry. She urged students to vote for "Grand Old Oprah."
During her senior year, Oprah visited a local radio station, WVOL. She hoped it would sponsor her in a March of Dimes charity walkathon. A disc jockey, John Heidelberg, liked her voice and suggested she audition. The result was a part-time job delivering the news-at one hundred dollars a week, more than her salary in Vernon's store.
Winfrey continued to work at WVOL after graduating and starting college in 1971. She had won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. This prize came from an oratory contest sponsored by the Elks Club. Winfrey's speech, "The Negro, the Constitution, and the United States," was delivered in front of ten thousand people in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In college, Winfrey studied speech and drama. She dated a boy named William "Bubba" Taylor. This appears to have been her first strong love affair. Winfrey also competed in several beauty contests.
In her first contest, she became the first African American to win Nashville's Miss Fire Prevention. The three finalists were asked what they would do with a million dollars. Two answered, sensibly, that they would donate it to family or charity. Winfrey just smiled and said, "I'd be a spending fool!"20Her unrehearsed candor delighted the judges and helped her win.
Winfrey went on to become Miss Black Tennessee. This made her eligible for the Miss Black America contest, although she did not win.
One thing that Winfrey was not during this period was political. She had no interest in black power, the social movement that swept the African American community during this time. Then and later, she frequently stated her belief that individuals—not ethnic, racial, or religious groups—are responsible for their own success or failure. She recalls, "I remember being, like, sixteen or seventeen years old, and I heard [the Reverend] Jesse Jackson at an assembly program say . . . that excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism. I sort of took that on as my motto. So whatever I did, I always wanted to try to be the best at it."21
Clearly, Oprah Winfrey was focused on finding excellence in her own career. That career was just about to start.