"It was one of the greatest surprises of my life," the talk show host says
Credit: Fred Prouser/Landov

Forty-seven years ago, when Oprah Winfrey was 9 years old and living with her father in Tennessee, her mother, Vernita Lee, became pregnant with a daughter who was given up for adoption. Winfrey had known nothing about it.

On The Oprah Winfrey Show on Monday, the talk show host revealed the family secret she had been hyping since last week, introducing her half-sister, Patricia, from Milwaukee.

“It was one of the greatest surprises of my life,” said Winfrey, who found out the news last October. “It left me speechless.”

Patricia was born in 1963 in Milwaukee and lived in a series of foster homes until the age of 7. She was then adopted, but said her childhood was “difficult” and she longed to be reunited with her birth mother, Winfrey says.

When Patricia was 17, she had a daughter, Aquarius, and then six years later son, Andre. She was unwed and as a single mom worked two jobs to care for her kids.

A Search for Her Birth Mother

When Patricia, whose last name was not revealed, turned 20, she first tried to find out who her birth mother was but quickly gave up the search. Then a few years ago, she resumed the search and got her adoption records.

Through the adoption agency, Patricia reached out to her birth mother, whose name she still didn’t know, but her mother did not want to meet her.

The very day, she happened to catch a TV news story about a woman named Vernita Lee, who was talking about a son, Jeffrey, who died in 1989, and a daughter, Pat, who had died in 2003. The information matched details in her adoption records.

“The hair on the back of my neck stood up,” Patricia said. “I said, ‘No, that can’t be.'”

Her son Andre researched Winfrey’s background and quickly realized that dates and locations lined up. Patricia tried to reach Lee numerous times, once even having her church pastor contact Lee’s pastor, but Lee was not ready for a meeting, Winfrey said.

A DNA Match

So Patricia went to a Wisconsin restaurant owned by Winfrey’s niece, showed her the adoption documents and revealed her suspicion that they were related. Patricia and the niece underwent DNA testing, which proved a positive match.

After that, there were a flurry of emails back and forth between various Winfrey relatives and Winfrey, but none would reveal the secret, saying it was Lee’s place. Winfrey asked her mother about giving a child up for adoption, but Lee said it wasn’t true.

Then one day in October, 10 minutes before she was walking out to do a show, Winfrey asked her assistant what the truth was and she replied, “You have a sister.”

Winfrey confronted her mother with the information and Lee finally admitted the truth. Lee and Patricia met on Oct. 25 for the first time since her birth.

On Thanksgiving Day, Winfrey drove to her mother’s home in Milwaukee, where her half-sister sister Patricia was waiting.

“It was a Beloved moment,” Winfrey says, referring to the movie in which a daughter comes back from the dead. Home video shows the two embracing for a long moment.

During an interview taped last week with Patricia and their mother, Lee said she had denied the truth for so long because she was ashamed that she had given up a child for adoption.

“I thought it was a terrible thing that I had done,” Lee said, adding that she felt she wouldn’t be able to take care of another child and get off welfare if she had kept her. Still, she said, “I did think about the baby. I went back looking for her and they told me she had left.”