Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey was born to Vernita Lee & Vernon Winfrey on a farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on January 29, 1954. Her name was supposed to be Orpah, from the Bible, but because of the trouble of spelling and pronunciation, she became known as Oprah. Winfrey’s divorced parents separated soon after she was born, leaving her in the care of her maternal grandmother on the farm.

At six years old, Winfrey was sent north to meet her mother and two half-brothers in a Milwaukee ghetto, a poor and highly dangerous community. At twelve years old, she was taken to stay with her father in Nashville, Tennessee. Feeling protected and happy for a brief period, she began making speeches at social assemblies and churches; after a period, she was earning $500 per speech. She knew then that she desired to be “paid to talk.”

Winfrey was sent for by her mother, and she had to leave the care of her father’s home. The poor, citified lifestyle had a negative outcome on Winfrey as a young teenager, and her problems were exacerbated by continual sexual abuse, starting at age nine, by men who were trusted by others in her family. Her mother worked some odd jobs and did not have enough time for mothering. After years of bad conduct, Winfrey’s mother sent her back to her father in Nashville. Winfrey said her father redeemed her life. He was very strict and supplied her with guidance, structure, regulations, and books. He required his daughter to complete weekly book reports, and she went without a meal until she learned five new words each day.

Winfrey became Miss Black Nashville and Miss Tennessee during her first year at Tennessee State. The Nashville Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) affiliate offered her a job; Winfrey turned it down twice, but eventually took the advice of a speech teacher, who educated her with the advice that job offers from CBS were “the rational motive people go to college.” The show was seen each evening on WTVF-TV, and Winfrey was Nashville’s first African American female co-anchor of the evening news. She was 19 years old and still a second-year in college.

After Winfrey graduated, WJZ-TV in Baltimore, Maryland, scheduled her to do the local news updates (cut-ins) during Good Morning America, and soon she was transferred to the morning talk show Baltimore Is Talking with co-host Richard Sher. After seven years on the TV show, the general manager of WLS-TV, American Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Chicago affiliate, saw Winfrey in a trial tape sent in by her producer, Debra DiMaio. At the time, her evaluations in Baltimore were better than Phil Donahue’s, a national talk-show host, and she and DiMaio were employed.


Winfrey moved to Chicago, Illinois, in January 1984 and took over as the television reporter on A.M. Chicago, a morning talk show that was systematically last in the ratings. She changed the focus of the show from traditional women’s issues to current, debatable topics, and after one month the show was even with Donahue’s program. Three months later, it was ahead. In September 1985, the program – renamed the Oprah Winfrey Show – was elongated to one hour. As a result, Donahue moved to New York City.

The popularity of Winfrey’s program skyrocketed after the success of The Color Purple, and in September 1985 the distributor King World bought the marketing rights to air the program in one hundred thirty eight cities, a record for first-time marketing. That year, although Donahue was being aired on two hundred stations, Winfrey won her time slot by 31 percent, drew twice the Chicago hearing as Donahue, and carried the top ten markets in the United States.

Winfrey created her own production company, Harpo, Inc., in August 1986 to produce the content that she wanted to see produced, including the television drama miniseries based on Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, in which Winfrey was depicted along with Cicely Tyson, Robin Givens, Olivia Cole, Jackee, Paula Kelly, and Lynn Whitfield. The episodes aired in March 1989 and a regular series called Brewster Place, also starring Winfrey, debuted on ABC in May 1990. Winfrey also owned the screen rights to Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane’s autobiographical book about thriving under the social policy in South Africa, as well as Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

At the 2018 Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey was presented with the Cecil B. DeMille award. She gave a political speech at what was already a political event. She talked about the power of seeing Sidney Poitier win an Oscar, as she watched as a child, and paid tribute to Recy Taylor, the African-American woman who died less than two weeks ago and bravely spoke out after she was abducted and raped by six white men in 1944 (the men were never brought to justice). “She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men,” said Winfrey. “For too long women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up,” she said. “Their time is up.” “I want all the girls watching,” she said, voice rising, to know “that a new day is on the horizon”.

Her Golden Globes speech has reignited calls for Winfrey to run for the presidency. It would be a remarkable move from moral to political leadership for a figure such as herself.