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A visit to Nikki Haley's hometown — where division 'still exists'

Bamberg, S.C., the hometown of Nikki Haley, featured prominently in her presidential campaign launch.
Sarah McCammon
/
NPR
Bamberg, S.C., the hometown of Nikki Haley, featured prominently in her presidential campaign launch.

Nikki Haley's tiny hometown – Bamberg, South Carolina – played a starring role in the launch of her presidential campaign.

A video released online Tuesday announcing her run for president began with images including a set of railroad tracks.

"The railroad divided the town by race," Haley narrated. "I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants - not Black, not white. I was different."

The next day, during a speech in Charleston kicking off her bid for the 2024 Republican nomination, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Trump said her parents taught Haley and her siblings that "even on our worst day, we are blessed to live in America."

Haley paints a picture of Bamberg – and the country – as a place where race is a reality, but not a limitation.

As the only Indian family, "our little town came to love us, but it wasn't always easy," she said. "Nobody knew who we were, what we were, or why we were there."

Haley was born in 1972, just a few years after her parents moved the family to Bamberg, a town with a current population around 3,000. Her father took a position as a biology professor at a local college and her mother taught school before opening a successful clothing store.

A visit to Bamberg

"No, nobody knew who they were," said Harriet Coker, a retired teacher, on a recent sunny afternoon in Bamberg.

Coker has known the family - the Randhawas - since before Nikki was born. She had Nikki in her seventh-grade social studies class and remembers her as quiet, but smart.

There were challenges. A spokeswoman for Haley's campaign says when they first moved to the area, her parents struggled to find anyone who'd rent to them. Her modest childhood home was featured prominently in Haley's campaign video.

But soon, Coker says, they were just part of the community.

"It didn't take long for people to really get to know them and to realize what wonderful people they are," she says.

Harriet Coker, 84, at her home in Bamberg, S.C. Coker taught Nikki Haley in her seventh-grade social studies class.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
/
NPR
Harriet Coker, 84, at her home in Bamberg, S.C. Coker taught Nikki Haley in her seventh-grade social studies class.

As she launched her campaign, Haley pointed to her political resume as a living example of the idea that America is – at its core – a land of opportunity. She pushed back on what she described as a rising "self-loathing," which she said views America as "flawed, rotten, and full of hate" – particularly on the political left.

"Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history, America is not a racist country," Haley said, drawing robust applause from the mostly white crowd.

'It still exists'

Tony Duncan, a local Black business owner, is a few years older than Haley and remembers being in school with her older siblings.

"She comes from good people, and she's good people," Duncan said.

But, growing up in South Carolina in the 1960s and '70s, Duncan says race was always there.

"I think all of us know what this country was built on. And [racism] still exists," he said. "It exists. As people here in America, we have to deal with these things."

Lisa B. Stokes grew up in Bamberg and spent her career as a teacher. She started elementary school right around the time local schools were integrating and spent her first year of grade school in an all-Black class. Stokes has mixed feelings about Haley's comments.

Lisa B. Stokes, 60, is a retired schoolteacher from Bamberg.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
/
NPR
Lisa B. Stokes, 60, is a retired schoolteacher from Bamberg.

"Yes, there are so many opportunities and we can all make it," Stokes says. "It's a lot easier for some than others."

Slights and racist insults

In her life and her political career, Haley has at times been targeted for her race.

At age 5, Haley was asked, mid-competition, to bow out of the Little Miss Bamberg beauty pageant – which had separate awards for Black children and white children – because they had no category for her, she told the New York Times Magazine in a 2011 interview. After that, the town integrated its pageants and many other social activities.

"I mean, that kind of thing would [make her] say, 'Well, now it's crystal clear. I'm different; I don't fit in," said Sharon Carter, the Bamberg County Republican Party chairwoman.

Carter grew up in Bamberg around the same time as Haley. She says Haley's race was never a significant issue, and the family was well-regarded: "You know, by the time you're in school as elementary-age kids, everybody just all gets along."

In 2010, when Haley was running for governor of South Carolina, a Republican state senator who was an ally of one her primary opponents used a racist slur to refer to Haley, alluding to her parents' Sikh faith.

Coker says despite that "really insulting" incident, Haley pressed forward.

"I don't write many letters to the editor but I had to respond to that, and I said, 'Well you obviously don't know them,'" she said of how she responded to that hate incident. "She ended up winning, and she hasn't slowed down."

Both sides of the tracks

(Left photo) Despite more modest beginnings in Bamberg, S.C., Nikki Haley's parents eventually moved into this larger home, which they sold in 2002, according to local property records. (Right photo) This modest home in Bamberg, S.C., is featured prominently in Nikki Haley's presidential campaign launch video.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
/
NPR
(Left photo) Despite more modest beginnings in Bamberg, S.C., Nikki Haley's parents eventually moved into this larger home, which they sold in 2002, according to local property records. (Right photo) This modest home in Bamberg, S.C., is featured prominently in Nikki Haley's presidential campaign launch video.

As Haley's star has risen, her hometown – like many other rural small towns, has declined, losing jobs and many of its young people. The interstate bypassed the community, and a textile factory left town. Older residents can remember when the town's main street was bustling and lined with traffic; today, most of the old brick storefronts are empty or covered in plywood.

And there are still racial divisions.

Stokes, who lives a few blocks from the much larger home that Haley's parents eventually moved into, says when she moved into the overwhelmingly white neighborhood around 1990, many of the neighbors actively avoided her.

"It was obvious some were not really pleased we'd moved here," Stokes said. "And even to this day, you know, we're the only African-American couple on the street."

Stokes says she appreciated Haley's work to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol after a white supremacist shot and killed nine people at a historically Black church in Charleston in 2015. But she was disappointed to see Haley – after first criticizing Trump – align herself with him just a few years later.

"It's like, 'Who are you, Nikki Haley?'" she questioned. "Really and truly, who are you?"

Stokes says she is proud of the recognition that Haley has brought to their hometown. But she hopes that Haley will remember the people back home – on both sides of town.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.