Contemporary Black History - Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey
January 29, 1954 – Present

Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough.~ Oprah Winfrey

American television host, actress, producer, philanthropist and entrepreneur Oprah Gail Winfrey is best known for her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986-2011), which was the highest-rated program of its kind in history. She has been ranked the richest African-American of the 20th century and the greatest black philanthropist in American history.

After Oprah’s birth in Kosciusko, Mississippi, she spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her maternal grandmother, Hattie Mae (Presley) Lee, who was so poor that Winfrey often wore dresses made of potato sacks. Her grandmother taught her to read before the age of three.

At age six, Winfrey moved to an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her mother, Vernita Lee, a maid. At 13, after suffering years of abuse by male relatives and a family friend, Winfrey ran away from home. She returned but was difficult to manage, and her mother sent her to live with her father Vernon in Nashville. Vernon, a coal miner, barber and later a city councilman, made Oprah’s education a priority. She became an honors student and joined her high school speech team. She won an oratory contest, which secured her a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she studied communication. At age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. A local black radio station, WVOL, hired her to do the news part-time. She worked there during her senior year of high school and again while in her first two years of college.

In 1976, Winfrey moved into hosting TV chat shows, first in Baltimore and then Chicago. Winfrey's open, warm-hearted personal style won viewers and high ratings. Her success led to a role in the 1985 film The Color Purple, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Winfrey launched The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986. She soon gained ownership of the program from ABC, drawing it under the control of her new production company, Harpo Productions ('Oprah' spelled backwards).

Winfrey is a dedicated activist for children's rights. In 1994, President Clinton signed a bill into law that Winfrey had proposed to Congress, creating a nationwide database of convicted child abusers. She founded the Family for Better Lives foundation and contributes to numerous organizations and causes. In November 2013, Winfrey received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama gave her this award for her contributions to her country.