An Oprah Winfrey biography would not be complete without a look at her early life and all the challenges she had to overcome to achieve the larger-than-life success, fame and fortune she enjoys today. More than a mere talk show host, Oprah is an award-winning actress and producer, a media mogul and a philanthropist, whom many people count among the most influential women worldwide. But like anyone who's achieved the success she's managed to achieve, Oprah Winfrey's story had to start somewhere. In her case, it started in 1950s-era Mississippi.
Oprah Gail Winfrey
Birth Date and Location:
January 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi
Events of 1954:
- January 14: Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio
- March 25: RCA manufactured the first color television set
- July 7: WHBQ in Memphis, Tennessee was the first radio station to broadcast music by Elvis Presley
- August 16: The first volume of Sports Illustrated was published
- September 3: The last The Lone Ranger episode was aired on the radio
- October 18: The first transistor radio introduced from Texas Instruments
- November 3: The first Godzilla film is released in Japan
- December 28: The birth of actor, Denzel Washington - who would go on to direct and star in a film for Harpo Studios in 2007
Vernita Lee - 18 at Oprah's birth
Vernon Winfrey - 20 at Oprah's birth
Grandmother - Hattie Mae Lee
Oprah 's Early Life in Mississippi:
Oprah's mother moved North to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to find work -- she planned to move Oprah there once she had secured a job. Oprah stayed with her grandmother on her farm in Mississippi.
Hattie Mae Lee encouraged Oprah's love of books by teaching how to read at the age of 3. Oprah started by reading the Bible and at a young age and eventually began speaking at her church. Oprah moved on to performing memorized verses to her grandmother's friends.
Oprah started kindergarten at 5 already knowing how to read and write -- she was quickly moved into the first grade.
Oprah's Move to Milwaukee:
At 6, Oprah's grandmother became ill and she was sent to live with her mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There she lived with her mother and half-sister, Patricia, in a boardinghouse. Oprah's mother worked as a maid cleaning houses, but at times had to rely of welfare to support the family. She had little time at home with her children, but when she was able to be there, spent most of her time with Patricia.
Another Move - Nashville, Tennessee:
After living with her mother for just over a year, Oprah was sent to live with her father and step-mother, Zelma, in Nashville. Vernon and Zelma were not able to have children and were happy for Oprah to live with them. At 7, Oprah experienced having her own bedroom and bed for the first time.
Oprah began Wharton Elementary School and was skipped a grade for the second time and was place in the third grade class. She was thrilled that her parents took her to the library and placed a value on her education. Once in Nashville, Oprah attended church regularly with her parents and began speaking publicly once again.
Back to Milwaukee:
After her third grade year ended, Oprah's father took her back to Milwaukee for a visit with her mother. In the time that Oprah had been in Nashville, Vernita had another child, a boy, named Jeffrey. Oprah's family lived in a 2 bedroom apartment, and she shared a room with her siblings. 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 thought of being famous one day.
Oprah's Experience with Sexual Abuse:
At 9 and living in Milwaukee, Oprah and her siblings were left with their cousin to watch them, who was 19 at the time. It was this cousin who sexually abused Oprah for the first time -- she was raped, and then taken out for ice cream and told to keep it a secret -- which she did. She was again abused by a family friend and an uncle a couple of years later -- ongoing abuse that she kept silent.
Oprah in High School:
Oprah Attends Nicolet High School
While attending Lincoln Middle School in downtown Milwaukee, a teacher, Gene Abrams, took notice of Oprah's love of books and helped her transfer to Nicolet High School -- an all white school in Glendale, Wisconsin. At Nicolet, Oprah was the only African-American student, but was later quoted as saying, "In 1968 it was real hip to know a black person, so I was very popular."
Back in Nashville - and Pregnant
Without receiving much direction from her mother, and unable to discuss her sexual abuse, Oprah resorted to acting out -- skipping school, dating, stealing money from her mother, and running away. Vernita could not handle Oprah's behavior any longer and sent her back to live with her father in Nashville. At 14, Oprah discovered she was pregnant, though she hid this news from her parents until she was in her 7th month. The day she told her father the news of her pregnancy, she went into early labor and delivered her baby that day -- a boy, who died within 2 weeks of his birth.
Oprah Back On Track
At 16, Oprah first read the autobiography of Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings -- and was later quoted as saying, "I read it over and over, I had never before read a book that validated my own existence." Dr. Angelou would later become a very close friend of Oprah's. She began to get her life back on track, concentrating on her education and public speaking. Oprah's talent would start to take her places, when in 1970 she won an Elk's Club speaking competition, earning a 4 year college scholarship as the prize.
Oprah's First Experience in Journalism
In 1971, Oprah was chosen to attend the White House Conference on Youth in Colorado and represent Tennessee with one other student. After returning to Nashville, she was interviewed by the radio station WVOL -- the station would later ask her to represent them and participate in a beauty pageant -- Miss Fire Prevention. Oprah would go on to win the competition and was the first African-American to ever win the contest. After her win, the radio station offered her a chance to here her voice on tape -- because of her experience with public speaking, Oprah's skill earned her a part-time position as a newsreader. At 17, Oprah finished out her senior year on the radio -- with a 4 year college scholarship in her future.
Source: Oprah Winfrey: Just the Facts Biography by Katherine Krohn