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Oprah Winfrey

  b. 1954 | American talk show host/entrepreneur

At The Bottom
 1968

Nobody had a clue that my life could be anything but working in some factory or a cotton field in Mississippi

Oprah Winfrey’s young life had completely unraveled by the age of 14, when she discovered that she was pregnant.  Herself born out of wedlock to a young woman in Kosciusco, Mississippi, Winfrey grew up in one of the bleakest parts of the poorest state in the nation. “I was raised with an outhouse, no plumbing,” she explained once.  “Nobody had a clue that my life could be anything but working in some factory or a cotton field in Mississippi.” Her mother and father were not an intimate part of her early childhood; her father left Mississippi and moved to Nashville around the time of Oprah’s birth, and her mother soon after headed north to Milwaukee.  Raised until the age of six by her maternal grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, Winfrey was a bright child who nevertheless grew up lonely, without any friends to speak of and surrounded by severe adults who expected children to be quiet and well behaved.  Craving some form of companionship, she read stories and talked to the pigs in the barn.  When she was six, Oprah moved to Milwaukee to join her mother, who was poor and put in long hours as a domestic worker.  Oprah felt unwanted, resenting her lighter-skinned half sister and growing to hate her mother, whom she blamed for the sexual abuse she suffered from one of her mother’s male friends as well as from one of her uncles.  Sexually promiscuous and increasingly hard for her mother to control, Oprah was at last sent away once more, this time to Nashville to live with her father.  Already pregnant, she gave birth to a premature baby who died after only two weeks of life.

At The Top
 2008

Winfrey had become without question the wealthiest African American in US history.

Oprah Winfrey would not have been surprised to learn that she’d made Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.  After all, she’d made the Forbes 400 every year since 1995, and there was no reason to assume she’d fall off the list anytime soon.  Her afternoon television talk show — which had turned her into a household name more than two decades earlier — had served as the basis for a media empire that included a film production company, two magazines, a website that draws six million users per month, a satellite radio channel, and a television channel scheduled to launch in 2010.  With a net worth of more than $2 billion and an annual income of nearly $300 million, Winfrey had become without question the wealthiest African American in US history.  With an enormous, loyal and dedicated fan base, Winfrey’s cultural influence is extraordinary, as she’s helped shape her audience’s views on social issues, religion, literature, film and music.  As a philanthropist, Winfrey has given more than $300 million to a variety of causes and in 2005 was ranked by Business Week as one of the fifty most generous philanthropists in the United States.

The Comeback

She was a trailblazer who had a great responsibility to do her best and make the most of the opportunity she'd been given.

Winfrey credits her father, Vernon, as the primary positive influence that kept her young life from ruin.  “When my father took me,” she explained later, “it changed the course of my life.  He saved me . . .  I was definitely headed for a career as a juvenile delinquent.” Though her father was as poor as anyone else in Winfrey’s family, he provided an example of someone whose hard work and dedication had eventually paid off.  With the money he’d earned scrubbing dishes at a restaurant and working as a custodian, Vernon had saved enough to buy a small barbershop in Nashville.  As a deacon at his church, Vernon would also instill Oprah with a religious faith and personal discipline that would serve her throughout her adult life.  She had always been a smart child who did well in school — living in Nashville under her father’s care, Winfrey became one of the first black students to enroll at the formerly all-white East High School.  Vernon urged his daughter to always remember that she was a trailblazer who had a great responsibility to do her best and make the most of the opportunity she’d been given.  An honor student, she soon became active in drama and student government, and by graduation had won numerous debate tournaments. She had also begun working in radio, reading the news several times a week for a local radio station.  By the time she entered college at Tennessee State, Oprah Winfrey had already begun making a mark in the world while leaving her troubled youth behind.

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