Sheryl Lee Ralph received a special honor Saturday night at Project Angel Food’s Angel Awards, where she was recognized for her long-standing activism in the HIV/AIDS community.
While accepting the inaugural Sheryl Lee Ralph Legacy Award, the Abbott Elementary star admitted that she “never dreamed that someone would name an award after me and then put the word ‘legacy’ after it.” Ralph has worked with Project Angel Food for more than 30 years – which started during the AIDS crisis and now delivers more than one million medically tailored meals annually to people facing food, financial and health insecurities in LA County .
In her speech, Ralph reflected on her 1981 Broadway debut Dream womenand noted, “Of all the great things we’ve done Dream women, no one ever mentions the fact that we lost a third of our original business to AIDS. They were good people, nice people, creative people. One night you were singing and dancing with them, and the next night they were fighting for their lives.”
“It was a bad time in America when people took comfort in pointing to those who suffered and died and saying, ‘That’s what they get and that’s what they deserve,’” she continued. “Dear celebrities and people we liked and laughed with on TV came out and said the most hateful, meanest things you could ever hear said about another human being. And when they were about to pass away and die, and they were going to be in the hospital, there was no bed for them. There were doctors and nurses who refused to provide care and some of them had signs on their beds that said ‘Do not touch.’
Ralph said she doesn’t know what made her speak up, but she wondered why no one was doing anything to help those affected by the disease. “And the way people told me to shut up. The way people told me, ‘You won’t have much of a career because no one will like you hanging out with those people,'” she recalled. ‘They were wrong. I will never forget a church taking the time to write me a letter and tell me that God would find no favor in me for talking about this AIDS thing. Horrible.”
She concluded by thanking “all my friends – for those who aren’t here, but for those who gave their lives, and I’m sorry we don’t have a cure.”
Lily Tomlin presented Ralph with the honor after joking that she had been there when the star first volunteered with Project Angel Food 30 years ago, after walking into a church where the organization was serving meals. She also read a letter from Vice President Kamala Harris congratulating Ralph on the honor.
“I’ll never forget it, I heard her mumble something sincere under her breath. I heard her say, “They’re going to name an award after me one day.” And then she looked up at the person who was the chef and said, “I’m just here to help,” Tomlin teased. “Well, Sheryl Lee Ralph is a force of nature, and when she walks into the room, she brings her own damn spotlight. And she has used that light to stand up for the HIV/AIDS community when few would, and she has used it to right social injustice, fight ignorance and advocate for change.”
The event, held at Project Angel Food headquarters in Los Angeles, also included a toast to AIDS activist, artist and author Mary Fisher, as well as a performance by Jewel and a dinner prepared by Angelini Osteria.