infrey's first name was spelled "Orpah" on her birth certificate after the biblical figure in the Book of Ruth, but people mispronounced it regularly and "Oprah" stuck. She 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's biological father is usually noted as Vernon Winfrey (born c. 1933), a coal miner turned barber turned city councilman who had been in the Armed Forces when she was born. However, Mississippi farmer and World War II veteran Noah Robinson Sr., (born c. 1925) has claimed to be her biological father.
After Winfrey's birth, her mother traveled north and Winfrey spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her maternal grandmother, Hattie Mae (Presley) 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 stick when she did not 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, Vernita Lee, who was less supportive and encouraging than her grandmother had been, largely as a result of the long hours she worked as a maid. Around this time, Lee had given birth to another daughter, Winfrey's younger half-sister, Patriciawho later (in 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 daughterwho was put up for adoption (in the hope of easing the financial straits that had led to Lee's being on welfare) and later also named Patricia.Winfrey did not learn she had a second half-sister until 2010.By the time Winfrey moved back with her mother, 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, uncle, and a family friend, starting when she was nine years old, something she first announced to her viewers on a 1986 episode of her TV show regarding sexual abuse.When Winfrey discussed the alleged abuse with family members at age 24, they reportedly refused to believe her account.
Winfrey once commented that she had chosen not to be a mother because she had not been mothered well. At 13, after suffering what she described as years of abuse, Winfrey ran away from home. When she was 14, she became pregnant but her son was born prematurely and he died shortly after birth. Winfrey later stated she felt betrayed by the family member who had sold the story of her son to the National Enquirer in 1990.
She began attending Lincoln High School, Milwaukee; 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, although 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 the age of 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".