MILWAUKEE — Oprah Winfrey’s mother, Vernita Lee, died at her Milwaukee home last week, her family announced Monday. She was 83.
A Winfrey spokeswoman on Monday issued a statement saying Lee died at her Milwaukee home on Nov. 22. The spokeswoman says private funeral services were held. No other details were provided.
Lee was 18 when she gave birth to her first child in rural Mississippi, naming her Orpah, but the girl became known as Oprah but because everyone mispronounced it. Lee later moved to Milwaukee and Oprah, then 6, moved to live with her mother.
Lee died on Thanksgiving at the age of 83.
After living with her grandmother in Mississippi for the first six years of her life, Oprah traveled to Milwaukee to live with her mother. Lee gave birth to Oprah’s younger half-sister, who died in 2003.
Winfrey recalled a favorite story about her mother during a 2003 visit to the city of Pewaukee. Speaking at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual Freedom Fund dinner, she said her best Christmas ever was in Milwaukee when she was 12.
Lee, who was working as a maid in Fox Point, told Winfrey that Santa Claus was not coming that year because the single mother didn’t have much money to buy presents. But on Christmas Eve, nuns brought food and toys for Winfrey and her siblings.
Winfrey said that experience was one of many that taught her that through giving “you enlarge the spirit of somebody else.”
Lee was a lifetime member of the NAACP, and her daughter joked at the dinner that Lee had been asking her for years to come to Waukesha County to speak at the Freedom Fund event. Lee and a friend who was the NAACP Waukesha branch president sometimes attended tapings of her TV show in Chicago bearing cakes to bribe Winfrey into coming to the dinner.
“Coming to Waukesha County on a Saturday evening was not my idea of a great time,” Winfrey said to an amused crowd. “But my mama convinced me it was gonna be a ‘wonderful evening.'”
In 2011 Lee appeared on her daughter’s television show with a Milwaukee woman who was put up for adoption by Lee in 1963. Winfrey said on her show that she was stunned to learn about her sibling, Patricia Amanda Faye Lee, who also appeared on the show.
Patricia Lee was put up for adoption when Winfrey was 8 and living with her father.
Lee said she never told Winfrey about her half-sister “because I thought it was a terrible thing for me to do. … I made the decision to give her up because I was unable to totally take care of her.”
Winfrey said she had made peace with Lee’s decision. “To my mother, I say, ‘You can let this shame go.'”
Winfrey later moved back to Milwaukee to live with her mother, a relationship that was difficult, and Winfrey later said that she ran away from home and gave birth at the age of 14 to a baby that died soon after birth. After her daughter attended Lincoln High School and Nicolet High School, Lee sent Winfrey to again live with her father in Tennessee.
Winfrey thrived in Nashville, becoming an honors student and earning a scholarship at Tennessee State University.
In the 2000s Lee was sued by a high-end fashion store for unpaid debts. Lee settled a $155,000 debt with Valentina Inc. in 2009.
Lee is survived by her daughters as well as four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Private funeral services were held. The family directed memorials to Feeding America in Lee’s name.
By Meg Jones, USA Today Network. Read more at usatoday.com