Oprah Winfrey’s mother, Vernita Lee, died at her Milwaukee home last week, her family announced Monday.
Lee was 18 when she gave birth to her first child in rural Mississippi, naming her Orpah, but the girl became known as Oprah but because everyone mispronounced it. Lee later moved to Milwaukee and Oprah, then 6, moved to live with her mother.
Lee died on Thanksgiving at the age of 83.
On a 2003 visit to the city of Pewaukee, Winfrey spoke about her childhood in Milwaukee at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual Freedom Fund dinner. She said her best Christmas ever was in Milwaukee when she was 12 and living on North 10th Street.
Lee, who was working as a maid in Fox Point, told Winfrey that Santa Claus was not coming that year because the single mother didn’t have much money to buy presents. But on Christmas Eve, nuns brought food and toys for Winfrey and her siblings.
Winfrey said that experience was one of many that taught her that through giving “you enlarge the spirit of somebody else.”
Lee was a lifetime member of the NAACP and her daughter joked at the dinner that Lee had been asking her for years to come to Waukesha County to speak at the Freedom Fund event. Lee and a friend who was the NAACP Waukesha branch president sometimes attended tapings of her TV show in Chicago bearing cakes to bribe Winfrey into coming to the dinner.
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