Who was Oprah Winfrey’s dad, Vernon Winfrey? The former barber, who passed away peacefully at 89, was the billionaire media mogul’s inspiration – and didn’t care if he was her biological dad or not
Oprah Winfrey, 68, recently mourned the loss of her father, Vernon Winfrey, who passed away on July 8. He was 89 years old and battling cancer.
The media titan went back to her hometown in Nashville to spend time with him. She threw him a special surprise party on the Fourth of July and called it the “Vernon Winfrey Appreciation Celebration” as seen on the star’s Instagram. His doting daughter surprised him with flowers, balloons, a giant sign and a visit from his older sister, Christine, per the Oprah Daily website.
“Yesterday with family surrounding his bedside I had the sacred honour of witnessing the man responsible for my life, take his last breath,” Oprah wrote in a touching Instagram statement. “We could feel peace enter the room at his passing. That peace still abides. All is well. Thank you for your prayers and good thoughts.”
He was a barber and a councilman
Vernon Winfrey was born in Mississippi in 1933 and moved to Nashville after serving the army during the Korean war. He was married to Barbara Winfrey from 2000–2013.
He made a name for himself as an established barber in his Nashville community, owning a barber shop in East Nashville for more than 50 years – Winfrey Barber & Beauty Shop. He set up shop in 1964 after working some odd jobs as a pot washer and a janitor at Vanderbilt University.
In 2012, Oprah bought the business where her father continued to work even at the age of 86 – three years before his passing.
“I saw that over and over again in my father’s barber shop. Men would come in, hardworking men, doing everything they could in their lives to support their families, working sometimes two and three jobs to do that,” Oprah told People last year, commenting on the flawed narrative of absent black fathers.
Not only that, Winfrey senior had also served on the Metro Nashville Council for 16 years during his lifetime.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper honoured Vernon on Twitter after his passing. “Vernon served on Metro Council for 16 years and dedicated his life to entrepreneurship, barbering and mentoring young men in the community. An army veteran and deacon, he leaves behind a legacy of service.”
He was also a trustee for the Tennessee State University.
He wasn’t sure if he was her biological dad, but raised Oprah like his own
Vernon shares Oprah with her late mother, Vernita Lee, but they were never married. According to multiple reports, her mother gave birth to her when she was a teen.
“They had sex one time. He gets a letter after I’m born saying, ‘Send money. You have a daughter,’” Oprah shared, and added that Vernon never actually knew if Oprah was his biological daughter – but he didn’t care.
“I had a father who took responsibility for me, even though he knew I could have been somebody else’s child. And the responsibility that he took for me, not just a responsibility but care and love and direction and support as a young teenage girl, is the thing that made the difference in me being who I am now or somebody you would have never, ever heard of,” she told People in 2021.
Oprah said Vernon “saved” her life
The late Mr Winfrey was also responsible in shaping Oprah to be the person she is today.
“My mother didn’t have the time. She worked every day as a maid. She was one of the maids on those buses. If I hadn’t been sent to my father [when I was 14], I would have gone in another direction. I could have made a good criminal. I would have used these same instincts differently.”
Vernon was also very open with his daughter and guided her. “I talked to her about the approach of boys or men. I told her, ‘If you don’t hold up for yourself, the guys are not going to hold up for you,’” he told the same publication.
He instilled the importance of education in her
Besides being a strict father who raised Oprah with discipline and determination, Vernon was even stricter about education. He rejected young Oprah coming home with C’s in school one time and demanded her to up her studies.
Vernon also asked young Oprah to choose five books from the library once and write reports on them. “Not only did I have homework from school, but homework at home!” Oprah remembered. “Plus, I had an hour a day to watch television,” she told The Washington Post.
He was her biggest fan, always
Vernon’s high aspirations for his daughter helped her excel in life and he was not shy about how proud he was of how far she’d come.
“Oprah has gone farther than I ever thought of her going. She’s come a long way. See, I can look back and see from where she came and I am proud that she made it,” he said in an interview.
“I think my thing in life has been working hard, making money or trying to make a living. I was never very studious at school and I had always stated that I would never let my children come up with no better chance than I had.”
- Oprah lost her 89-year-old father to cancer and, after throwing him an ‘appreciation celebration’ on the Fourth of July, spent his last moments with him, calling it a ‘sacred honour’ on Instagram
- Her mum, Vernita Lee, had her as a teen and asked Vernon to send money – the former army soldier and barber responded by raising Oprah as his own from age 14