By Jade Ruggieri
About the size of South Carolina, Sierra Leone faced an 11-year Blood Diamond Civil War. Two years after the war ended, Princess Sarah Culberson visited her newfound family and saw privilege in a different way.
She saw a recovering community in need of support. A need for clean drinking water. A need for technology in school systems. A need for stable banking intuitions.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Culberson and her biological brother Hindogbae co-founded Sierra Leone Rising, formerly The Kposowa Foundation, supporting education, public health and female empowerment to 44,000 people in the Bumpe Chiefdom.
“We started with our nonprofit status in 2006, but we started doing work technically in 2004,” Sarah Culberson said. “We listened to the people — to the community on the ground. This is not any type of savior work; it’s about working together and learning from each other to move forward from war.”
Over the past 16 years, Culberson’s work with Sierra Leone Rising has included opportunities for Bumpe students to take online computer coding classes, providing supplies to the public during the Ebola virus epidemic, and currently provides supplies and educational awareness of the COVID pandemic. With Rotary International, Sierra Leone Rising built wells serving about 12,000 people.
Because of this work, Culberson received the Impact award for the 30th Annual Bounce Trumpet Awards, which are given to “individuals who demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership and innovation to positively impact the community.” Fittingly, the awards show will air on Juneteenth — June 19 at 7 p.m. on Bounce.
To watch the Trumpet Awards, go to BounceTv.com/FindUs for information to view it on local channels.
“I’m honored to have received this award,” Culberson said. “I also understand Juneteenth is a special time for freedom, for Africans when they were freed from being enslaved, and I think it’s an important time and celebration to think about a narrative that isn’t, ‘We’re all descendants from slaves, but we’re actually descendants from Africans, and were enslaved.”
Founded in 1992 by Civil Rights leader Xernona Clayton, the Trumpet Awards heralds the accomplishments of Black humanitarians who have made significant contributions to the “quality of life for all.” From television, film, music, politics and the arts, notable recipients include Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, III, Maya Angelou, President Nelson Mandela, Beyoncé and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“When I got up on stage, I was holding back tears — the honor, the emotions, seeing what people did to pave the way for me to be able to do the things I want to do as a person of color and as an African American as an African in this country, is really special,” Culberson said.
Roots in success
With front-row seats, Culberson’s adoptive father, Jim Culberson, of Morgantown, said attending the Trumpet Awards was an exciting moment for him and the family to see her work recognized as she represents Africa, West Virginia and what it means to be a good person in general.
“The whole award experience was like no other,” Jim Culberson said. “The people being honored for this award are a very distinguished group, so it was a real joy to have my daughter honored in a similar manner.”
Jim Culberson said Sarah is a moving, engaging, “could talk to any person” type of person and through her award, hopefully, brings general awareness to African American life in West Virginia.
Culberson’s “origin story” resembles a realistic Disney princess movie. Adopted at the age of 1 by Jim and Judy Culberson, Sarah said she was always the overachiever. Growing up in West Virginia, Culberson did not look like the rest of the community or even her family, so she did everything she could to fit in, from being homecoming queen to student body president.
She attended West Virginia University and went on to the American Conservatory Theater for a Master of Fine Arts in classical theater. She appeared on television and traveled around the world with Urban Latin Dance Theater Company CONTRA-TIEMPO.
Although she is grateful for living in a wonderful community with a supportive, loving family, as a young adult Sarah said she felt as though she had a piece missing from herself. In 2003, she began her journey to learn about her heritage.
Origins of a princess
Culberson knew her biological mother, a West Virginia native, passed from cancer when she was 11.
“I never got to meet her, but I got to meet some of her family members, hear stories about her and see pictures,” Culberson said. “There was so much she and I had in common. I feel like I get a lot of my personality from her based on the stories.”
Regarding her father, Culberson was apprehensive. She wanted to find him but was afraid of being rejected. A friend recommended a private investigator who only charged $25 to find Culberson’s father.
A letter was sent. Four days later Culberson received a phone call.
“Sarah, we’re so happy you have been found. You are part of a royal family. Your great-grandfather was a paramount chief in Sierra Leone. Your grandfather was a paramount chief. You are a princess in this country.”
Six months later, Culberson planned a trip to go to Sierra Leone. As she walked into the airport, her birth father was standing there as if his eyes were saying, “please like me, please accept me.” Culberson said she was nervous; he was nervous, too, and she gave him a big hug.
Taking a ferry to Freetown, named for the place where enslaved Africans from different places in the world were returned, Culberson’s father gifted her with a beautiful green African dress, and he had a matching green shirt.
When they arrived in Bumpe, Culberson was welcomed by hundreds of people, with the women wearing the same dress. In Mende, they were singing, “we’re preparing for Sarah.” In astonishment, Culberson said she learned a valuable lesson that as someone who is used to overachieving, just showing up to Sierra Leone meant the most.
Since then, Culberson and Tracy Trivas co-authored “A Princess Found,” which is currently in development for a Disney motion picture. Separate from the movie, Culberson is working with Randy Jackson on an animation series for children to learn about cultures around the world and a Roblox game for children to have fun and learn at the same time. Culberson speaks about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at universities, corporate America and internationally.
For more information on Culberson, visit sarahculberson.com or @iamprincesssc for updates about Culberson on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
To get involved in supporting communities in Sierra Leone or donate to Sierra Leone Rising, visit sierraleonerising.org.