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Meet Princess Sarah Culberson, an adopted woman who discovered she was royalty while searching for her biological parents

Summary List PlacementPrincess Sarah Culberson was born to an African man and a white American woman in April 1976, and was placed in foster care as an infant before she was adopted by Jim and Judy Culberson, a white family living in Morgantown, West Virginia. Culberson — a princess of Mende tribe of Bumpe, Sierra Leone — had no idea she was African royalty until she was 28, when she had a conversation with a friend that changed her life forever. "My friend said, 'Where are you holding back in your life?' Culberson told Insider. "I said, 'I'm terrified to find...

Princess Sarah Culberson wearing an intricate neck piece.

Summary List Placement

Princess Sarah Culberson was born to an African man and a white American woman in April 1976, and was placed in foster care as an infant before she was adopted by Jim and Judy Culberson, a white family living in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Culberson — a princess of Mende tribe of Bumpe, Sierra Leone — had no idea she was African royalty until she was 28, when she had a conversation with a friend that changed her life forever.

“My friend said, ‘Where are you holding back in your life?’ Culberson told Insider. “I said, ‘I’m terrified to find my birth father.”

Princess Sarah Culberson with her parents, Dr. Jim and Judy Culberson, and her two sisters.

Culberson, 45, said her adoptive family surrounded her with unconditional love, but she had lingering questions about her identity. She started searching for her birth mother at 21 but learned she died of cancer 10 years earlier. A question mark remained about her birth father.

Culberson said she took her friend’s suggestion and hired a private investigator for $25, who found a promising lead after three hours. The investigator suggested Culberson send a letter.

“I didn’t expect to hear from anybody,” Culberson said. “Four days later, I got a phone call.”

The woman who called Culberson was her father’s sister, who lived in Maryland. Culberson said her uncle took the phone and explained that her biological father is chief of the royal family of the Mende tribe.

“He says, ‘Do you know who you are?'” Culberson told Insider. “‘Your great-grandfather was a paramount chief. You are a princess.'”

Picture of Princess Sarah Culberson and her biological father, Joseph Joseph Konia Kposowa, of Bumpe, Sierra Leone.

After talking with her uncle, Culberson said she spoke on the phone with her birth father, Joseph Konia Kposowa.

“The first thing he said was, ‘Please forgive me. I didn’t know how to find you after you were placed in adoption,'” Culberson said.

Culberson traveled to Bumpe six months later and was greeted by hundreds of people in a homecoming celebration that lasted several days.

Sarah Culberson and her father, Jim Culberson, arriving to Sierra Leone to meet her biological father.

Princess Sarah inherited responsibility as a royal

Culberson said that when she arrived in Bumpe in 2004, Sierra Leone was recovering from an 11-year civil war. Schools were reduced to rubble, homes were destroyed, and many people were missing limbs. She added that in her time as a royal, Bumpe has endured natural disasters and the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, and the city has felt the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All I knew was Disney princesses or the Queen of England,” Culberson told Insider. “I learned that being a princess is about being committed to and responsible for your community.”

Culberson launched the nonprofit organization Sierra Leone Rising, which has rebuilt Bumpe High School, created Mask on Africa, installed solar lanterns, and helped distribute clean drinking water.

Girls in Bumpe, Sierra Leone, celebrate receiving sanitary pads from Princess Sarah Culberson's organization, Sierra Leone Rising.

Since embracing her royal roots, Culberson says she’s felt ‘grounded’

More than a decade since Culberson discovered her royal roots, Disney is looking to make a movie based on her memoir, “A Princess Found,” produced by Stephanie Allain. A Disney spokesperson told CNN in June that it’s “in the early phase of development.”

Culberson told Insider that embracing her royal heritage has “grounded” her. She encourages people wanting to connect with their roots to “be gracious” with themselves.

“It’s so powerful for people of color, specifically African Americans, to see our lineage and know it doesn’t start with slavery,” Culberson said.

“I had a lot of preconceived notions,” Culberson continued. “When we give ourselves the opportunity to step away from that, it gives us freedom and other people freedom to show up as who they are.”

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Learn more about Culberson on her website.

Representatives for Disney did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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