In the pilot episode of Abbott Elementary, the popular ABC sitcom about teachers in a poor public school in Philadelphia, Sheryl Lee Ralph’s character, Barbara Howard, marches into a classroom of rowdy second graders, where a young teacher is trying to get them under control. Barbara instantly calms down the rambunctious youngsters, as no one dares to mess with this no-nonsense, intimidating kindergarten teacher. Breaking the fourth wall, Ralph looks at the camera and introduces her character, saying, “I’m Barbara Howard. I’m a woman of God. I do my work, I go home. I get my nails done every week and I love teaching.” Now that’s our kind of woman!
While Ralph’s performance in Abbott Elementary has won her many new fans of all ages (and an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 2022!), she’s been working steadily for years. Here’s what to know about the fabulous 66-year-old star.
How Sheryl Lee Ralph got her start
Ralph’s screen acting credits go back to the late ’70s, starting with a role in the 1977 movie A Piece of the Action, directed by the iconic star Sidney Poitier. From there, Ralph appeared in episodes of popular shows including Good Times, Wonder Woman and The Jeffersons. In 1983, Ralph got the role of Laura McCarthy on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow.
Later in the ’80s, Ralph was cast in the ABC show It’s a Living, a sitcom about a group of waitresses who work at a fancy restaurant atop a skyscraper. Throughout the ’90s and 2000s Ralph continued to act in roles on the big and small screen, including the movie Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (alongside the inimitable Whoopi Goldberg), and TV shows like Designing Women, Moesha, Ray Donovan and Instant Mom.
Ralph can truly do it all — she’s also a singer, and released an album in 1984. While most of Ralph’s roles have been in television, perhaps her most famous gig came when she originated the role of Deena Jones in the legendary Broadway musical Dreamgirls, which told the story of a fictional girl group, in 1981. She was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress for the role. More recently, Ralph has released two books filled with her glamorous wisdom, Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl, in 2012 and Diva 2.0: 12 Life Lessons from Me to You in 2023.
Sheryl Lee Ralph’s personal life
Ralph has two children from her first marriage and has been married since 2005 to Vincent Hughes, a Pennsylvania state senator. They live in the Philadelphia area. Outside of her acting career, she’s also a noted activist who founded The DIVA Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting AIDS, in 1990. DIVA stands for “Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware” — a phrase that also describes Ralph as a performer.
Ralph has spoken movingly of how her faith prepared her to help people of all walks of life. “The community, everyone, people of all kinds of walks, faiths and beliefs just found it easy to turn their backs on people in need. The little church girl in me said, we can do better than this – I can do better than this,” Ralph said in an 2019 interview.
Ralph’s commitment to charity is admirable, as are her many talents as a singer, actress and all-around fabulous lady. We can’t wait to see her back on our screens every week. While ABC has renewed Abbott Elementary for a third season, the premiere date has yet to be announced.
We’re definitely ready to see Mrs. Howard get those rowdy kids under control, and we love that Ralph has become known for playing a feisty mature woman. After over 40 years in the industry, her star shines brighter than ever.
Read on for more about our favorite actresses!