Oprah Winfrey had a particularly tough Thanksgiving this year. Although on the day itself, she Instagrammed two uplifting videos, including a sneak peek at her planned feast, she then went dark on social media for the weekend. Now, we know why: Winfrey’s mother, Vernita Lee, died at age 83 on Thursday.
“The family of Vernita Lee are saddened to share of her passing on November 22, 2018 at her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” a spokesperson for Winfrey told HuffPost. They also said Lee has already been laid to rest in a private funeral.
Winfrey has spoken openly about growing up in poverty and moving between the care of Lee, her father, Vernon, and her grandmother. In a 2015 interview with HuffPost OWN, she spoke about growing up in Mississippi with her grandmother until they were separated when Winfrey was only 6. At that time, she was sent to live with her mother.
“I suddenly land in a place that’s completely foreign to me. I don’t know anybody. I don’t really even know my mother. I walked into that space feeling completely alone and abandoned,” Winfrey said. “I remember the first night entering into that house and being told that I wouldn’t be able to sleep with my mother and I wouldn’t be able to sleep inside the house. There was a little foyer/porch before you actually got inside the house. I was put outside to sleep there.”
Winfrey told HuffPost OWN that, although she was only 6 at the time, she knew she was put on the porch because of the color of her skin. In 1960, the light-skinned black woman her mother stayed with could have passed for white, but Winfrey’s darker complexion wouldn’t provide the same protection.
Born in 1935, Lee worked as a housekeeper her entire life. She is survived by her daughters, Winfrey and Patricia Amanda Faye Lee, the latter whom she gave up for adoption when Winfrey was 8 years old. In 2011, Winfrey learned about her sister’s existence and introduced her to the world on an episode of her show, noting that Patricia never sought fame or money from their relation.
On Mother’s Day in 2012, shortly after she met her half-sister for the first time, Winfrey shared an old photo of herself and her mother on Twitter. She wrote, “Thank you to my mother Vernita Lee for doing the best she knew and could do in raising me.”
Thank you to my mother Vernita Lee for doing the best she knew and could do in raising me. pic.twitter.com/JhKTY2RK
— Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) May 13, 2012
According to People, Lee opened up to Milwaukee local news station TMJ4 in 2007 about the deaths of two of her children (Jeffrey Lee, who died in 1989 and Patricia Lee Lloyd, who died in 2003), as well as her feelings about Winfrey and her success.
“I loved her the way that she loves people now,” Lee told the station, adding that her proudest moment was in 1985 when Winfrey “did the Color Purple.”