Here's everything to know about Oprah Winfrey's mother, Vernita Lee

By Alexia Fernández
November 26, 2018 03:40 PM
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Oprah Winfrey has said goodbye to her mother Vernita Lee.

The 83-year-old passed away on Thanksgiving at her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lee lived a hard life, working as a maid while raising three children.

Winfrey told Barbara Walters in a 2010 interview that she retired her mother and father after she gained success from The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“[I wanted] to take care of them and to provide for them and to make sure that they never had to want for anything as they tried to do for me,” the mogul said.

While Lee’s final years were spent in the comfort of her home, her life was far from easy. Here’s everything to know about the mother of four.

Credit: MediaPunch/REX/Shutterstock

Born in the Deep South

Lee was born on May 2, 1935, and worked as a housekeeper throughout her life. She was just 18 when she met Vernon Winfrey and spent one night with him that resulted in her famous daughter’s conception.

Soon after Winfrey’s birth in 1954 in Mississippi, Lee moved to Milwaukee leaving her daughter behind in the care of her mother, Hattie Mae Lee. Winfrey would be raised by her grandmother for the first six years of her life.

Sending Oprah to Her Father

In 1998, Winfrey told Barbara Walters she was a troublesome teenager while growing up with her mother.

“I used to run away from home, I used to bring boys home and cause all kinds of problems for myself,” the mogul said.

Everything changed when Lee sent Winfrey to live with her father in Tennessee.

“I was 14 and then sent to live with my father,” Winfrey recalled. “And that ended it. That ended it. He was so strict because he knew what he had to deal with.”

Patricia Amanda Faye Lee, Vernita Lee and Oprah Winfrey
| Credit: OWN Communications

Dealing with Loss

Lee gave birth to a total of four children but lost son Jeffrey Lee in 1989 and daughter Patricia Lee Lloyd in 2003.

Of the loss, she told a local Milwaukee station TMJ4 in May 2007 that her Christian faith helped her pull through the tragic deaths.

“I am a Christian lady and if you’re a Christian person it helps you to deal with situations like that,” she said. “I spent a lot of time with Oprah and Jeffrey and Patricia.”

Reuniting with the Daughter She Placed for Adoption

That 2007 interview with the Milwaukee station caused Lee’s birth daughter Patricia Amanda Faye Lee to discover Lee was actually her mother.

In 2011, Winfrey invited Patricia onto The Oprah Winfrey Show after discovering she had a half-sister. In a clip on the show, Patricia said she’d always “wondered who my birth mother was and she lives 10 minutes away from me in the same city. Amazing.”

Winfrey addressed her audience, telling them, “A few months ago, right around Thanksgiving, I found out that I have a half-sister I never knew about. I didn’t even know my mother gave up a baby for adoption in 1963.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a story like this on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Needless to say, it’s something you need to process,” she continued.

Winfrey’s mother said she never told the talk show host about the adoption “because I thought it was a terrible thing for me to do,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“I made the decision to give her up because I was unable to totally take care of her,” she said.

Winfrey said she came to terms with her mother’s decision, saying, “To my mother, I say, ‘You can let this shame go.'”