It was 16 years ago when Princess Sarah Culberson first learned of her royal status. Since she was adopted as a baby, she knew very little about her family history. After years of battling with questions about her identity and her biracial roots, she made the decision to search for her birth parents at the age of 28. In her journey, she found out that her father lived in a village in Sierra Leone, and her birth mother passed away when she was 11. Princess Culberson said she learned the most life-changing news during her first phone call with her uncle.
“My uncle gets on the phone and he’s like oh Sarah, we are so happy you have been found. Do you know who you are? And I just said, I’m Sarah. He said you are a part of a royal family. Your great grandfather was a paramount chief, your grandfather was a paramount chief. You can be chief someday. You are a princess,” said Culberson.
During that conversation, she learned that she is related to African royalty, a ruling Mende family in Sierra Leone. She is the child of a paramount chief and considered mahalo, which makes her princess of the Bumpe village. After making this discovery, she decided to take a trip to meet her father. This reunion called for a celebration with hundreds of people welcoming Culberson with a special ceremony, filled with dancing and singing “we’re preparing for Sarah”. While Culberson was able to reunite with her family and was welcomed by the community, she felt a strong responsibility after seeing the aftermath of the 11-year civil war.
“I said I can’t go back to the United States and act as if I didn’t see any of this. This isn’t the movie blood Diamonds, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. I can’t just walk away and act as if I didn’t see this. This is my family and I can’t press pause on the movie this is real,” said Culberson.
This is when Culberson made the decision to put her dreams of being an actress and dancer on hold, and dedicate her time to restoring her community. In 2006, she and her brother Hindo co-founded Sierra Leone Rising. The goal of this non-profit organization is to support education and the rebuilding of Bumpe High School after the 11 year Blood Diamond war. The organization has also expanded its mission to include female empowerment and public health in the Bumpe Chiefdom of 44,000 people with the goal to expand the work throughout the country.
“It’s not just about me and going and living my life and acting at that time. It’s about what am I going to do here? This is also my family and my responsibility. My great grandfather and my grandfather helped with education all throughout the country.”
Nearly two decades since the royal news, Culberson makes an effort to visit Sierra Leone often. She is currently living in the United States, she and her boyfriend have considered moving there. In 2009, she published a book about her story and is currently working on an animated children series. Her book, A Princess Found will be adapted into a Disney film, produced by Stephanie Allaine. She hopes her story inspires others.
“I want us, as black folks, multiracial, people of color to know our beauty and to know our history and where we’ve come from. And to not let anyone take that away from us or try to demean us and so on, I just think I want us to be proud of who we are. And that’s what I want people to walk away with,” said Culberson.
In addition to running the foundation, Culberson is a public speaker, with a focus on diversity, inclusion, leadership and inspiration. She also hopes to pursue an acting career, while still serving her people.