Who Is Oprah Winfrey?
As a young girl in the 1950s, Oprah Winfrey loved to tell stories. She lived outside the town of Kosciusko (say: kah-zee-ESS-ko) in central Mississippi on her grandparents’ farm. No other children lived nearby, so the farm animals became Oprah’s friends. She named the pigs and chickens and told them stories.
Some of her tales were made up. Others came from the Bible. Oprah’s grandmother Hattie Mae Lee used the Bible to teach Oprah to read at an early age. Oprah was smart and memorized Bible verses easily. She soon began reciting them at her church.
The first time Oprah stood at the front of the church to recite Bible verses was on Easter Sunday in 1957. She was only three years old. She wore a dress her grandmother had made and the shiny shoes she saved for Sundays. The rest of the week she went barefoot. “Jesus rose on Easter Day, hallelujah, hallelujah,” Oprah announced. She did not sound nervous at all.
“That child sure can talk,” church members said. Some called her gifted. Oprah didn’t understand that word, but she thought it meant she was special. She loved the attention and continued to recite Bible verses at her church on Sundays. As she got older, she spoke at other churches. She recited longer passages from the Bible. Sometimes she recited poems or sermons written by famous ministers.
Oprah’s talent for speaking led to a very successful television career. For twenty-five years, The Oprah Winfrey Show
was one of the most-watched talk shows in the United States. Today, Oprah is one of the richest, most powerful women in the world. She says it all began when she was three years old, reciting Bible verses at the front of her church. Chapter 1: Farm Girl
Orpah Gail Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. She was named Orpah after a woman in the Bible. But most people had trouble pronouncing her name. They kept switching the r
and the p
. They always seemed to call her Oprah
, and the name stuck.
Oprah’s mother, Vernita Lee, was eighteen years old when Oprah was born. Her father, Vernon Winfrey, was in the US Army. He didn’t know he was going to be a father when he returned to the army base in Alabama. He found out months later when Vernita sent him a newspaper article announcing Oprah’s birth.
There were not many job opportunities for Vernita in Kosciusko. Many African Americans at the time were leaving the southern United States and moving north. They were looking for better jobs and a better life there. They also wanted to escape the segregation of the South. Vernita decided to do the same. She moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leaving four-year-old Oprah with her grandmother. Vernita planned to send for Oprah after she got settled.
Even though Oprah’s grandparents were poor, she always had clean clothes to wear and never went hungry. Her grandmother made Oprah’s clothes. Most of their food came from what they raised on the farm.
There was always work to do, and Oprah was expected to help. One of her jobs was to feed the chickens. The house had no indoor plumbing—no bathroom or running water—so Oprah had to bring water from a nearby well for drinking and doing dishes. On Saturdays, she hauled water to be heated on the stove and poured into a tin tub for bathing.
Oprah was afraid of her grandfather Earless Lee. “I remember him always throwing things at me or trying to shoo me away with his cane,” Oprah recalled. She stayed away from him as much as possible.
Like many people of that time, Hattie Mae believed in physical punishment. She thought it helped children learn to be good. She whipped Oprah often. “It would be called child abuse now,” Oprah once said. But Oprah also had good memories of her grandmother. She liked working with Hattie Mae in the garden. Then they sat on the porch snapping green beans and shelling the peas they picked. It was Hattie Mae who taught Oprah to kneel and say her prayers every night.
Because of Hattie Mae’s lessons at home, Oprah could already read and write when she started kindergarten. The other students were just learning the alphabet. Oprah wrote her teacher a note. “I do not think I belong here,” it said. Her teacher and the principal agreed. Oprah was moved up to first grade.
When Oprah was six, she went to Milwaukee to live with her mother. Vernita had another daughter named Patricia by then. The three of them lived in one room they rented from the owner of the house. Vernita’s job as a maid left her little time or energy for her two daughters. She worked hard, but did not earn quite enough money. When Oprah was eight, Vernita sent her to live with her father in Tennessee.
Vernon Winfrey and his wife, Zelma, lived in the city of Nashville. They did not have any children of their own, and they welcomed Oprah into their home. Zelma helped Oprah learn multiplication. She also took Oprah to the library, where she was thrilled to get her first library card. She read books such as Strawberry Girl
by Lois Lenski. Oprah wanted to be the character in whatever book she was reading. When she read about a girl named Katie John, Oprah painted freckles on her face to be like that character.
Oprah began reciting Bible verses at the church they attended, just as she had with her grandmother. Word about her talent spread, and she was invited to speak at other churches in the city. Some of Oprah’s classmates didn’t like the attention she got. They made fun of her, calling her “the Preacher.” It made Oprah angry, but their teasing did not stop her from reciting at church.
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