By: Piper Rutherford
“A lot of times there is something that is grander that opens the door to a whole new world. It involves taking that uncomfortable first step to open endless possibilities.” These are the empowering words of Ursuline’s virtual Global Week keynote speaker, Sarah Culberson, last Thursday, January 21st.
Every little girl can be a princess. This magic fairy tale of sleeping little girls who wish upon countless stars was granted for one biracial orphan in small town America.
Even from a young age, Culberson feared not fitting in, throwing herself whole heartedly into her community, always feeling the need to be perfect.
“I was class president throughout middle school and high school, captain of the basketball team, and homecoming queen. Later, I got a full ride scholarship to the University of West Virginia, and eventually got into one of the top six acting schools in the country,” she said.
Amid her success, however, was the constant struggle of being different throughout her childhood. Eventually, she knew that all she had to be was herself.
This Malahoi princess of Bumpe in Sierra Leone, descendant of a paramount chief, recalls growing up in Morgantown, where the population was only three percent African American.
“I could mirror those around me, but I could never reflect them. Every time I was out in public it was obvious that I was different,” said Culberson.
Even in her early adulthood she was vulnerable to discrimination by those in the film industry, including other African American actresses whom she had called her heroes since she was a little girl.
“I will never forget meeting this breathtakingly, gorgeous woman from the comedy Coming to America and what she said to me left me speechless. She told me that I should put a weave in my hair so that I look like everyone else in Hollywood,” said Culberson.
Insecurities for this upcoming actress began to build as she neared her late twenties, addressing her fears while in an acting class.
“I am afraid that my biological father will reject me. That he wants nothing to do with me. That he abandoned me,” shuddered Culberson.
Sarah sought to find her birth father, the haunting aspect of her life that has been holding her back all these years.
“Luckily, my friend Art was able to get me in contact with a private investigator who only cost me twenty-five dollars and took just three days,” said Culberson.
This television star put her words to paper and hand wrote a letter to the Maryland address.
Four days after sealing her envelope, she received a telephone call, not from her father but from other unknown relatives that welcomed her with open arms from across the states to various villages in Africa.
Their voices rang in her ears for many days sending messages of pure love.
“Hello, Sarah… We love you, Sarah… Your father will be so proud of you, Sarah,” recalls Culberson.
Finally hearing the voice of the one she only thought would play in her imagination.
Sarah’s father cried, “Please forgive me, Sarah. I didn’t know how to find you, your name had been changed, everything changed.”
At that moment, Sarah knew that she needed to visit the place of her heritage, a proper homecoming fit for a princess.
Sarah was gifted a green dress from her father upon her arrival, quickly realizing that all the women in Bumpe wanted to look like her.
Her, the same girl who never fit in at school.
Her, the woman who was told to put a weave in her hair.
“I just showed up and that was enough,” said Culberson.
Although this land of riches, Sarah realized, was left in ruins after the gruesome Blood Diamond War in Sierra Leone, a civil war that lasted eleven years, from 1991-2002 leaving nothing but ashes and destruction in its wake.
This princess felt the need to help her people after seeing the debris of a former boarding school destroyed by Revolutionary United Rebels in 1994.
Over 600 children from Bumpe used to learn in this pile of rubble.
“In that moment I realized what a privilege education is. When I got back to the states, I would get calls in the middle of the night with children begging me to send money for a uniform so that they can be educated and go to school,” said Culberson.
Life, she realized, would never be the same.
Sarah collaborated with friends, colleagues, and students of her own to see what they could do to help.
“We are all alive, and at one time our life will be complete, so what are we going to do during that time?” questioned Culberson.
This Hollywood actress was able to establish the Sierra Leone Rising, a non-profit organization with projects such as providing wells for clean drinking water, Solar Lanterns, Prosthetics and Physical Therapy Center, Sanitary Pad Program for Girls, coding, book clubs, and its newest addition, Mask on Africa.
“I realize that it takes a village to make change and that the results do not happen overnight, but I refuse to stand by while my people suffer,” said Culberson.
This princess is aware of her responsibilities that come with her royal title, yet she is up for the challenge.
“I had called my older sister Lynn after discovering my heritage and learning about my father in Bumpe. She had one response. ‘Sarah, we always knew you were a princess,’” laughed Culberson.
Even so, this princess still helps people overcome their own insecurities and doubt that they may face considering others judgement and criticism.
“When I was growing up, I always sought someone who embodied me on the big screen. Someone who celebrated who I was rather than who I was not. That is why I use my platform to be that voice and figure for all the young girls who feel ostracized by their community, African American or not,” she said.
This was not an easy transition for Culberson, but the spotlight is nothing new for this Los Angeles film and television actress.
Traveling the world as Princess Lulu in her upcoming Disney animation starring Zendaya, to West Virginia and West Africa, all from the comfort of her West Hollywood studio, only to discover that she, Sarah Culberson, is indeed royalty.