The Untold Truth Of Oprah's Mother, Vernita Lee

With her otherworldly presence and her ability to inspire, to unite, and to do things like give away cars to a TV studio full of people and get Tom Cruise to jump on furniture, it's perfectly natural to assume that Oprah Winfrey — or just Oprah, because the world loves her so much it's on a first name basis with the talk show host/media mogul/cultural guru — is some kind of supernatural entity. But no, Oprah was born of human flesh, to human parents, and the world was reminded of that when her mother, Vernita Lee, passed away in 2018. 

Lee gave birth as a teenager to her very special daughter in 1954. As a young, often single, African-American mother in the segregated South in the mid-20th century, life was often brutally hard for Lee, but she persisted and resisted and lived a long and interesting life. According to information released by her family, Lee died on Thanksgiving Day at age 83. Here's a closer look into the life of Vernita Lee, the woman also known as "Oprah's mother."

She was a teen mom

Born in 1935, Vernita Lee was raised in rural Mississippi, met a young soldier named Vernon Winfrey, and at age 18, gave birth to a baby girl she named Orpah. According to USA Today, her first born "became known as Oprah because everyone mispronounced" her actual name. The new parents weren't married or living close to one another when their bundle of joy arrived. The Washington Post reported that Vernon learned he was a father when Lee sent him a clipping of the birth announcement with a note attached that said "Send clothes!" Neither mom nor dad were in a great position to take care of a baby at that point in their lives. 

Lee wanted to earn a decent living, and so, at the age of 20, she set out for Milwaukee, leaving Oprah behind in Mississippi to be raised by her mother — Oprah's maternal grandmother. At the age of 6, Oprah joined her mother in Milwaukee, where Lee worked as a maid, a job she'd hold for many years.

She sent Oprah away to live with Vernon

Moving to Milwaukee to live with her mother again wasn't an easy transition for 6-year-old Oprah. "I suddenly land in a place that's completely foreign to me. I don't know anybody," Oprah told The Huffington Post. Lee lived in a rented room in a house, so Oprah reportedly had to sleep in "a little foyer/porch."

When Oprah was 8, Lee sent her to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, in Nashville, but just a year after that switch, Lee told Vernon (pictured) she wanted Oprah to join her for the summer of 1963. All was fine, until Vernon came to pick up at his daughter at the season's end. Lee wouldn't give up Oprah. Vernon Winfrey told The Washington Post that this was the only time he'd ever cried about his daughter. "We had brought her out of that atmosphere, out of a house into a home, so I knew it was not good for her, being in that environment again." Sadly, he was right...

She had a strained relationship with her famous daughter

While living with her mother again, starting around the age of 9, Oprah said she was sexually assaulted by three family members. At 14, one of those unwanted encounters led to a pregnancy. Oprah later revealed that mother punished her for getting pregnant and attempted to lock her up in a facility for wayward girls. Because there were no vacancies at that location, Vernita reportedly sent Oprah back to Tennessee to live with her father again. 

Oprah's baby died at the hospital shortly after birth, and for years, she kept the pregnancy a secret from the public, even as her fame and fortune grew. "Only my family and closest friends knew," she told the New York Post. Oprah feared the truth would damage the career she'd worked so hard to achieve. "I imagined that every person on the street was going to point their finger at me and scream, 'Pregnant at 14, you wicked girl ... expelled!'" When the truth finally came out, to Winfrey's surprise, "No one said a word ... not strangers, not even people I knew. I was shocked. Nobody treated me differently. For 20 years, I had been expecting a reaction that never came."

Oprah paid her bills

All that deeply sad and toxic history led to a falling out between Oprah Winfrey and Vernita Lee. In October 1993, Oprah told Ebony that she did not communicate with her mother for many years. "I didn't see or hear from my mother," Oprah said. "That was seven years. So when she shows up, I'm like, 'Well, what am I supposed to feel? What's a daughter supposed to feel like?'" Winfrey looked to her faith to help her figure out her emotions. "What you owe your parents is honor and respect because that's what the Bible tells me," she said. "And so I have provided a great economic life for both my parents." In other words, she felt obligated to pay her mother's way in life, and so she did. 

In fact, fancy Milwaukee clothing store Valentina reportedly sued Vernita Lee in 2008 over the matter of an outstanding bill to the tune of more than $155,000. Lee's defense was a countersuit, arguing that she wasn't liable for debt because the store exploited her "lack of knowledge, ability, and/or capacity" when it offered her a generous line of credit. Ultimately, both sides reached an agreement. According to TMZ, Valentina got what it was due ... because Oprah stepped in and wrote a check.

She reconnected with the daughter she gave up for adoption

In 2010, Oprah Winfrey revealed what she called "a bombshell family secret" to the world. That truth bomb: She had discovered she has a half-sister named Patricia Lee.

While living in Milwaukee in April 1963, Vernita Lee reportedly gave birth to a daughter and placed her up for adoption (Oprah living with her father at the time.) "I was left in the hospital for about a month," Patricia revealed on Oprah's show. After spending about seven years with foster families, Patricia was adopted, yet she frequently fantasized about reuniting with her birth mother. "I had some disbelief that she didn't mean to put me up for adoption. I just would always wish that my birth mother was going to come back and get me," she said. 

At the urging of her own children, Patricia sought out her birth mother through proper channels and discovered she had siblings (Vernita's other children). Those siblings included a half-brother named Jeffrey who died in 1989, a half sister also named Patricia who passed away in 2003, and a half-sister who turned out to be Oprah. Vernita reportedly declined Patricia Lee's repeated attempts to connect, but finally, in 2010, Patricia had an opportunity to meet Oprah and her mother on separate occasions.

She died on Thanksgiving

On Nov. 26, 2018, Vernita Lee's relatives announced that their matriarch had passed away on Thanksgiving Day. Lee reportedly died at her home in Milwaukee. Oprah Winfrey was not with her at the time, but her famous daughter shared a lovely remembrance of her 83-year-old mother on Instagram. Alongside a photo of Lee surrounded by loved ones, Oprah wrote, "Thank you all for your kind words and condolences regarding my mother Vernita Lee's passing. It gives our family great comfort knowing she lived a good life and is now at Peace." Lee's death was announced after the family held a private memorial service over the holiday weekend. The family asked that those who wish to celebrate Lee do so with a donation to Feeding America.