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Steven J. Niven

cook and laborer, was born in Lawrenceville, Virginia, probably in 1862 or 1863. The names of his parents have not been recorded, and it is not known whether or not they were enslaved at the time of their son's birth. Indeed, but for the discovery of a package of letters written to Channing Lewis by Alice Hanley, a white Irish American woman, his life would have been largely lost to history. The letters, enclosed in a black lace stocking, fell from the attic of a house undergoing renovation in Northampton, Massachusetts, in spring 1992. When workmen opened up a hole in the ceiling, the stocking fell. Its contents provide a unique perspective on the southern black migrant experience and on the everyday life of black and white working-class people in New England at the turn of the twentieth century.

The letters also reveal a far from ...