JACKSON, Mississippi – Emmy-winning-actress Sheryl Lee Ralph encouraged attendees to support education at Jackson State University’s annual Mary E. Peoples Scholarship Luncheon held on Thursday, Sept. 29, at the Jackson Convention Complex in downtown Jackson. The event raised over $300,000 toward student scholarships.
“If you can, help somebody else because I really believe the future of the world is in some of these classrooms that we are very slow to help,” Ralph said. “You know, we don’t know who is going to cure cancer, [it] could be right here at Jackson State.”
The Abbott Elementary co-star recently won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. It was a moment of seeming disbelief for Ralph, whose career spans over three decades.
After her win, the author and activist was urged to scrub all appearances, including her keynote at JSU, which was confirmed a year in advance.
“I said ‘this is an HBCU and we cannot cancel them,’ and I’m here,” Ralph told the audience, who responded with applause.
Ralph’s comments come at a time when there is heightened awareness around HBCUs and what they offer to the world. A landmark study by UNCF concluded that HBCUs inject about $15 billion annually into the nation’s economy.
JSU’s chemistry program produces the 3rd highest in bachelor degrees, second highest in masters’ degrees, and third highest in doctoral degrees in physical sciences awarded to African-Americans in the country.
Additionally, JSU’s College of Business is among the top three producers of African-American business Ph.D.’s in the country and boasts an accreditation by the AACSB; only five percent of business schools hold this distinction worldwide.
Ralph described education as the great equalizer despite what others may say. She pointed out that many HBCU students are first-generation with some coming from difficult backgrounds.
“These children some of them dare to have a dream to be better, with so many of them coming from some very challenging situations. Do you know what it’s like to wake up with hunger in your belly and still dream of the food of education?” asked Ralph, a wife and mother of three.
Posing a second rhetorical question, she queried if listeners understood what it was like to come from a community where one is unsure if they will make it to the bus stop once they step out the front door.
Later in her address, Ralph explained that when people do not believe in themselves it has a physical and emotional impact that is tangible to others. She encouraged people to look in the mirror and love the reflection.
“Respect what you see because you deserve it and more. If you can figure out how to do it for yourself, do it for somebody else. And stop doing the same thing over and over, thinking you’re going to get a different result,” she demanded.
JSU business administration major Parker DeLoach had the privilege of asking Ralph for advice. The senior said it was a moment that he would not soon forget.
“Having a chance to meet and hear Sheryl Lee Ralph speak was such an empowering moment as a young Black man chasing his dreams. Every word uttered was drenched in ambition and pride as if she had known this moment would come her whole life,” said DeLoach. “It was such a privilege hearing her story and advice on her journey as a Black woman. Even amid everything, she came to share her moment and wisdom with Jackson state, which showed how much she cared about education and the elevation of Power.”
Toward the end of her address, Ralph challenged the audience to give back creating an impromptu fundraiser with attendees standing up and pledging anywhere from $5 to $5,0000.
The additional effort brought in a little over $48,000 adding to the $245,000 already raised for the luncheon named for Mary E. Peoples, a stalwart educator and community leader. She is also the wife of JSU President Emeritus John A. Peoples Jr, Ph.D.
The couple’s daughter Kathleen Peoples called the event a great honor and recognition of her mother and father’s dedication to education.
“I’m just pleased to be able to be there [sic] to represent them,” Kathleen told WLBT. “They are both in more delicate health now, so I’ve come out to this event, and I have been taking lots of pictures, so I can show them. I know they’ll be very proud that their efforts and the efforts of everyone here will promote student education.”