Winfrey was originally named "Orpah" after the Biblical character in the Book of Ruth, but her family and friends "didn't know how to pronounce it", and called her "Oprah" instead.
Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi to an unmarried teenage mother. She later said that her conception was due to a single sexual encounter and the couple broke up not long after. Her mother, Vernita Lee (born c. 1935) was a housemaid. Winfrey had believed that her biological father was Vernon Winfrey (born 1933), a coal miner turned barber turned city councilman who had been in the Armed Forces when she was born. Decades later, Mississippi farmer and World War II veteran Noah Robinson Sr. (born c. 1925) claimed to be her biological father.
A genetic test in 2006 determined that her maternal line originated among the Kpelle ethnic group, in the area that today is Liberia. Her genetic make up was determined to be 89 percent Sub-Saharan African, 8% Native American, and 3% East Asian; however, the East Asian markers may, due to the imprecisions of genetic testing, actually be Native American ones.
After her birth, Winfrey's mother traveled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee (April 15, 1900 - February 27, 1963), who was so poor that Winfrey often wore dresses made of potato sacks, for which the local children made fun of her. Her grandmother taught her to read before the age of three and took her to the local church, where she was nicknamed "The Preacher" for her ability to recite Bible verses. When Winfrey was a child, her grandmother would hit her with a switch when she didn't do chores or if she misbehaved in any way.
At age six, Winfrey moved to an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her mother, who was less supportive and encouraging than her grandmother had been, due in large part to the long hours Vernita Lee worked as a maid. Around the time Winfrey moved in, Lee had given birth to another daughter, Winfrey's younger half-sister, Patricia who later (on February 2003, at age 43) died of causes related to cocaine addiction. By 1962, Lee was having difficulty raising both daughters so Winfrey was temporarily sent to live with Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee. While Winfrey was in Nashville, Lee gave birth to a third daughter. Lee gave this daughter, later also named Patricia, up for adoption in the hope of easing the financial straits that had led to Lee's being on Welfare. Winfrey did not learn she had a second half-sister until 2010. By the time Winfrey moved back in with Lee, Lee had also given birth to a boy named Jeffrey, Winfrey's half-brother, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1989.
Winfrey has stated she was molested by her cousin, her uncle, and a family friend, starting when she was nine years old, something she first claimed to her viewers on a 1986 episode of her TV show, when sexual abuse was being discussed. When Winfrey discussed the alleged abuse with family members at age 24, they refused to accept what she said Winfrey once commented that she had chosen not to be a mother because she had not been mothered well.
At 13, after suffering years of abuse, Winfrey ran away from home. When she was 14, she became pregnant, her son dying shortly after birth. She later said she felt betrayed by the family member who had sold the story to the National Enquirer in 1990. She began high school at Lincoln High School; but after early success in the Upward Bound program was transferred to the affluent suburban Nicolet High School, where she says her poverty was constantly rubbed in her face as she rode the bus to school with fellow African-Americans, some of whom were servants of her classmates' families. She began to steal money from her mother in an effort to keep up with her free-spending peers, to lie to and argue with her mother, and to go out with older boys.
Her frustrated mother once again sent her to live with Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee though this time she did not take her back. Vernon was strict but encouraging, and made her education a priority. Winfrey became an honors student, was voted Most Popular Girl, and joined her high school speech team at East Nashville High School, placing second in the nation in dramatic interpretation. She won an oratory contest, which secured her a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, a historically black institution, where she studied communication. Her first job as a teenager was working at a local grocery store. At age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. She also attracted the attention of the local black radio station, WVOL, which hired her to do the news part-time. She worked there during her senior year of high school, and again while in her first two years of college.
Winfrey's career choice in media would not have surprised her grandmother, who once said that ever since Winfrey could talk, she was on stage. As a child she played games interviewing her corncob doll and the crows on the fence of her family's property. Winfrey later acknowledged her grandmother's influence, saying it was Hattie Mae who had encouraged her to speak in public and "gave me a positive sense of myself". Working in local media, she was both the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at Nashville's WLAC-TV. She moved to Baltimore's WJZ-TV in 1976 to co-anchor the six o'clock news. She was then recruited to join Richard Sher as co-host of WJZ's local talk show People Are Talking, which premiered on August 14, 1978. She also hosted the local version of Dialing for Dollars there as well.
Now you know.
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