Julie Jordan and Ale Russian
March 01, 2017 12:00 PM

Viola Davis is a newly minted Oscar winner, but the Fences star grew up with much, much less.

Davis opens up in PEOPLE’s new cover story about the struggles of growing up in poverty and how her talent propelled her to success later in life. In the issue, the Best Supporting Actress winner talks movingly about the only photo she has from her childhood.

“The only picture I have of my childhood is the picture of me in kindergarten,” says Davis, 51, whose family didn’t have the money for a camera. “I have this expression on my face — it’s not a smile, it’s not a frown. I swear to you, that’s the girl who wakes up in the morning and who looks around her house and her life saying, ‘I cannot believe how God has blessed me.’ “

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Viola Davis streaming now on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app on your favorite device. 

The actress was born in a one-room shack on her grandmother’s farm at the site of a former slave plantation where her grandfather worked as a sharecropper. Her parents, Dan and Mae Alice, moved to Rhode Island soon after her birth, and as they struggled to make ends meet, Viola and her five siblings struggled with hunger, dilapidated housing conditions and racist taunts from school bullies.

For much more from Viola Davis, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

“I was the kind of poor where I knew right away I had less than everyone around me,” she says. “Our environment, our physical space reflected our income.” At home, “the boards were coming off the walls,” she says, and the family endured “shoddy plumbing and no phone and no food and rats and all of that. That very much was visible to me.”

Viola Davis was voted 'most talented' in her senior year at Central Falls Junior-Senior High School, 1983.
Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library

The family’s rat problem was so bad, she has said, they bit the faces off her dolls and she had to go to sleep with rags tied around her neck to keep them from biting her at night. But the struggle didn’t weigh Davis down — it had the opposite effect.

“It became motivation as opposed to something else — the thing about poverty is that it starts affecting your mind and your spirit because people don’t see you,” Davis says. “I chose from a very young age that I didn’t want that for my life. And it very much has helped me appreciate and value the things that are in my life now because I never had it. A yard, a house, great plumbing, a full refrigerator, things that people take for granted, I don’t.”

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