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BackStory

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BackStory is a weekly public podcast hosted by U.S. historians Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Nathan Connolly and Joanne Freeman. We're based in Charlottesville, Va. at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Each week we take a topic that people are talking about and explore it through the lens of American history. Through stories, interviews, and conversation with our listeners, we make history engaging and fun.

174 Episodes
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What drives people to reject technology? Though American society has been driven by technological leaps forward, not everyone has come along for the ride. We explore the strain of technophobia in American society from Neo-Luddism to Sabbatarianism and the anti-technology terrorism of the Unabomber.About the image: Original Film Title: METROPOLIS. English Title: METROPOLIS. Film Director: FRITZ LANG. Year: 1927. Credit: U.F.A / Album. Source: Album / Alamy Stock Photo
In this episode, Joanne, Brian, and Nathan discuss stories of love that challenged social norms and transcended class, race, and gender. They explore how people subverted laws banning interracial marriage, and why a wave of heiresses running away with their coachmen caused a moral panic in the Gilded Age.
Nathan talks with historian Rhae Lynn Barnes about Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page and its link to a long and disturbing history of blackface minstrelsy. They discuss how white civic organizations used minstrel shows for fundraising, why the era known as Jim Crow is named after a minstrel character, and what must happen to prevent people from donning blackface going forward. THIS EPISODE CONTAINS SOME LANGUAGE THAT PEOPLE MIGHT FIND OFFENSIVE.
Nathan showcases some of BackStory’s best content about African American history in honor of Black History Month. In this episode, hear about one historian’s heartbreaking research into the human effects of lynching to the extraordinary story of Korla Pandit, the turban-wearing showman of California’s cocktail lounges. We’re also sharing a segment from “Scene On Radio” about the racial cleansing in Corbin, Kentucky that took place 100 years ago, but mostly remains hidden from the town’s official history. Note: This episode contains previously broadcast content. About the image: "Civil Rights mural at Martin Luther King Memorial Park in Atlanta,” May 18 2013 by denisbin via Flickr. Used under  CC BY-ND 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)
Today the Presidency of Richard Nixon is mostly remembered for how it ended - with the Watergate scandal, impeachment and resignation. But what about early Nixon, the man sworn into office in January 1969? As Nathan, Ed and Brian discover, Nixon ran a more imaginative and ideologically flexible administration than its ignominious ending might suggest.
We all have times when we want to be alone, but what is the history of solitude in America? How are experiments on dolphins connected with consciousness raising and isolation tanks? And what does Thoreau’s solitary experiment at Walden Pond have to teach us all in the digital age?
BackStory is ten years old, and to celebrate our birthday we’ve created an important new prize - the BackStory Prize for Public History. Join Ed, Brian, Joanne, Nathan and special guest judges Margot Lee Shetterly (author of Hidden Figures) and actor Chris Jackson (who played George Washington in “Hamilton” on Broadway) as they discuss the exhibitions, books, websites and museums competing to become the winner of the first ever BackStory Prize.
What could be more American than . . . butter carving? Maybe miniature roadside towns or perhaps a dead whale on a train. On this episode of BackStory, Ed, Brian and Nathan explore the best of Americana, finding the unique and the kitschy in American culture. (This show features two segments from previous episodes.)
It’s the holidays -- that time of the year when food is everywhere. So, Brian, Joanne, and Nathan sit down to discuss some of America’s many homegrown culinary traditions and what the food we eat says about American identity.In this episode we talked to Pati Jinich of "Pati's Mexican Kitchen." Find her recipe for Chilorio Burritas (and more) on her website. We also talked about Maida Heatter's "Best Damn Lemon Cake." Learn more about Heatter and find her lemon cake recipe (as well as a few other desserts) in this 1982 story from the Washington Post.
The Department of Defense developed the very first video game and the Oregon Trail taught a generation to live as a pioneer. Red Dead Redemption 2 might be a major commercial success, but how historically accurate is it of the Old West? On this episode, Brian, Nathan and Ed explore the relationship between history and video games in America.
What history books should you gift - or get- this holiday season?  BackStory’s hosts and special guests share their recommendations of the history page turners you should pack for the holidays.
Brian, Nathan and Joanne explore the history of the LGBTQ community in the US, from tales of gender fluidity in the Old West to early gay liberation, and from the political career of Harvey Milk to the barrier breaking career of one SFPD cop.
The CDC recommended flu shots for all this year after more than 80,000 Americans succumbed to influenza in 2017 - a four-decade high. But 100 years ago, a strain of H1N1 that was first found in soldiers in the spring of 1918 rapidly spread across the United States killing about 675,000 by 1919 and making it “the most severe pandemic in recent history,” according to the CDC. Brian, Nathan, and Joanne look back at the so-called “Spanish Flu,” how it affected the U.S., and why it’s often overlooked today.
This Thanksgiving week BackStory is all about stuffing and being stuffed. We’ll find out about the father of American natural history dioramas, talk to a man with a condor in his freezer, discover how a mischievous raven connects Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens and unravel the extraordinary story of the man who proposed stuffing the Founding Fathers.
Google the phrase “divided America” and you’ll find numerous, stories, opinion pieces and even psychological theories on why we’re so disconnected. From race and class to gender and politics, it seems that Americans can’t see eye-to-eye - to the point that a recent NBC News headline stated, “Americans are divided over everything except division.” On this episode, Ed, Nathan and Joanne look at other times in history when Americans were split.
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the first lawyer to occupy the Oval Office (and he wouldn’t be the last). Lincoln came to national prominence after a long career settling disputes between farmers and representing litigious railway companies. So what did this enterprising lawyer pick up along the way and how did his legal career influence the President he became? Ed and guest host Lindsay Graham of the American History Tellers podcast explore the career of Lincoln the Lawyer.
Thousands of Central American migrants, dubbed the “migrant caravan,” have traveled north on foot towards the U.S. border since mid-October. Originating in Honduras, the group includes men, women and children attempting to escape high poverty, violence and corruption. In response, President Trump deployed 5,200 active duty troops to the U.S. border with Mexico this week and indicates that number could reach 15,000. On this episode of BackStory, Brian, Nathan and Joanne consider the origins of illegal immigration and look at how the government’s deportation powers have grown over time.
On November 11, 1918, Germany formally surrendered to the Allied Powers, about 19 months after the United States entered the conflict. On this episode, Brian and Nathan reflect on how, 100 years later, “the war to end all wars” is still with Americans.
Around three quarters of a million people applied to be American Citizens in 2017. But what does citizenship actually mean? The way Americans have defined citizenship has changed over time and many have found their citizenship challenged, undermined, resisted and even revoked. On this episode of BackStory, Brian, Nathan and Joanne discover the path to citizenship has never been easy.
BackStory shoots up from the depths and spouts another great episode exploring the extraordinary tale of whales and whaling in America. Brian, Nathan, Joanne and Ed uncover the story of Cabin Boys who were women in disguise, find out why a decomposing whale was turned away from a Midwestern Town, and learn all about the Black whaler and entrepreneur who became one of the wealthiest men in America.
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