"I love my job and my relationship with the viewers who watch my shows," Hall, 45, tells PEOPLE, sitting down for an interview inside her chic Manhattan apartment on March 3. "The biggest compliment I get is when someone tells me, 'You're so real.' Even if my journey isn't exactly like theirs."
Hall's journey – from a modest childhood in rural Luling, Texas, to recently making history as Today's first African-American female co-anchor – includes a heart-wrenching tragedy. In 2004 her sister Renate was found beaten and bludgeoned to death, floating face down in the small backyard pool of her home in Houston, Texas. The crime came after years of relationships with abusive men.
Courtesy Tamron Hall
Though the two women were not blood-related (Renate was the daughter of Hall's stepdad), "We were family," says Hall. "That was my big sister. When I needed advice, I asked her."
But there came a time when her sister would be the one in need of help. "She was very smart and very beautiful," Hall says. Still, "Many times she'd fall for men who took advantage of her."
Once, Hall, herself was present for a brutal altercation between her sister and a male companion, whom Hall will not name out of fear of retaliation. After kicking the man out, "I said to her, 'What's wrong with you?' 'You're too beautiful. Too smart. You can do better.' All the things I've learned now are wrong [from domestic abuse advocates], I did them all."
According to Hall, Renate continued a relationship with the man who was later named as the only person of interest in the investigation of her murder. But due to a lack of evidence, no arrests were made and the case remains an unsolved homicide.
"Do we know who did this to her as defined by a court of law? No," says Hall. "But I can tell you I witnessed an act of violence and there were only two other people in that room."
It took time for Hall to overcome feelings of guilt. "I think Renate thought some part of me still judged her," she says. But now, Hall has managed to find the tragedy's silver lining. Working with group's Safe Horizon and Day One to end domestic violence and helping other families find closure on her ID Channel show Deadline: Crime, Hall says, "I've been given an opportunity to make a difference."