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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 Virginia Humanities.

There’s the history you had to learn, and the history you want to learn - that’s where BackStory comes in. Each week BackStory takes a topic that people are talking about and explores it through the lens of American history. Through stories, interviews, and conversations with our listeners, BackStory makes history engaging and fun.
259 Episodes
On this final episode of BackStory, Nathan, Brian, Joanne and Ed explore different kinds of finales throughout American history. They also consider what it’s like being a part of their own finale and how finales can sometimes lead to new beginnings.
Coach Tony Bennett knows a thing or two about big finales. He’s the head coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of Virginia. This is a clip from Brian's conversation with Coach Bennett about the power of sports and how you have to be able to accept the outcome of a big game, whether it’s a buzzer-beater win or a heartbreaking loss.  The full episode is coming to you this Friday, July 3.
As BackStory nears the end of its production, we’ve asked our listeners to call in with moments from the show’s history and compile their very own “Best of BackStory.” We got some great responses covering a range of topics, each of them meaningful to the present moment in their own way. So in this best of BackStory, we present three of our listener’s favorite interviews from the show. You’ll learn about the early U.S. Postal Service, and hear from residents of Hamlet, North Carolina as we explore the painful memory of a 1991 tragedy. Then, you’ll discover the long evolution of the Confederate flag’s design.
Coming Fall 2020. In most history classes, you learn that the Emancipation Proclamation and Union victories “freed the slaves.” But ending slavery in America required so much more than battlefield victories or even official declarations. Black people battled for their own freedom, taking incredible risks for a country that had actively denied their right to it. After the Civil War, they made freedom real by organizing for equality and justice during Reconstruction. On Seizing Freedom, you’ll hear stories of freedom taking and freedom making directly from the people who did both. Using stories selected from diaries, newspapers, letters, and speeches, we’ll take you straight to the sources of lived experience. Through them, you’ll hear voices from American history that have been muted time and time again. This excerpt is from the first episode of the series, about how some Black people escaped slavery to enlist with the Union Army—an Army that mostly didn't want them.
Charles Dickens died 150 years ago this month. A famous chronicler and critic of English industrial capitalism, Dickens was also immensely popular in the United States. But in an age of widespread debate about slave versus wage labor, his writings meant different things to different readers.  Music:  Bright White ( by Podington Bear Outmoded Waltz ( by Podington Bear Quatrefoil ( by Podington Bear Theme in G ( by Podington Bear Refraction ( by Podington Bear Stages of Awakening ( by Podington Bear Associations ( by Podington Bear Arboles ( by Podington Bear
The Last Archive is a show from Pushkin Industries about the history of truth, and the historical context for our current fake news, post-truth moment. It’s a show about how we know what we know, and why it seems, these days, as if we don’t know anything at all anymore. The show is driven by host Jill Lepore’s work as a historian, uncovering the secrets of the past the way a detective might. On this episode, The Clue of the Blue Bottle, Jill tells the story of a Spring day in 1919, when a woman’s body was found bound, gagged, and strangled in a garden in Barre, Vermont. Who was she? Who killed her? Jill tries to solve the cold case—reopening a century-old murder investigation—as a way to uncover the history of evidence itself. Find out more about The Last Archive at their website ( .
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted  communities of color. According to the CDC, 33% of people who’ve been hospitalized due to the virus have been African-American, despite making up only 18% of the population. The ongoing crisis is a reminder of the racial health disparities that have plagued the United States throughout its history. So on this episode of BackStory, Joanne and Brian learn about how different communities have struggled to acquire adequate health care. NOTE: This episode was recorded before protests took place across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer. The protests, in addition to the death toll of COVID-19, serve as brutal reminders of the systemic inequalities afflicting communities of color.  Suggested Reading: Murray, Shaw, and Siegel’s Reproductive Rights and Justice Stories (Law Stories Series) ( Jim Crow in the Asylum: Psychiatry and Civil Rights in the American South ( by Kylie Smith Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Race and Mental Illness in the Nation’s Capita (⟨=en&) l by Martin Summers
For the last decade or so, true crime has been everywhere -- Netflix shows like Making a Murderer and podcast series like Serial. All of them are a testament to the fact that for some strange reason, so many of us love stories about murder.  But this magnetism towards the morbid is far from new. Over the years, Americans have found fascination, repulsion and sometimes even comfort in true crime stories. So on this episode of BackStory, Joanne and Ed shine a light onto the dark history of true crime in modern American history.
“America” and “empire.” Do those words go together? If so, what kind of imperialism does the U.S. practice, and how has American empire changed over time?   By host and producer John Biewen, with series collaborator Chenjerai Kumanyika. Interviews with Nikhil Singh and Daniel Immerwahr.   The series editor is Loretta Williams. Music by Algiers, John Erik Kaada, Eric Neveux, and Lucas Biewen. Music consulting and production help from Joe Augustine of Narrative Music.   Chenjerai Kumanyika, collaborator on the Seeing White series, is a researcher, journalist, and artist who works as an assistant professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies. His research and teaching focus on the intersections of social justice and emerging media in the cultural and creative industries.    Photo: U.S. Navy Seabees at Camp Morell, Kuwait, 2005. U.S. Navy photo by James Finnigan.
As BackStory moves towards the end of its production, we’ve asked our hosts to select memorable moments from the show that we’re publishing as episodes once per month.  Joanne Freeman joined BackStory in 2017, and has since had hundreds of conversations on a huge variety of topics. But during this time, a few of these interviews surprised and moved her as a historian, and as a woman in unexpected ways. So in this best of BackStory, Joanne presents three of these striking conversations from her time on the show. You’ll learn about a decades-old family secret, and find out why we can never truly recover the past. Then, you’ll hear from Senator Tammy Duckworth about changing the culture of Congress. We need listener submissions for our June Best of BackStory! Find out more in our announcement ( .
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and record levels of unemployment, the conversation around socialism in the U.S. has resurfaced in surprising ways. So we thought we'd revisit this episode from 2019.  Image: The cover art for the album "Power to the Working Class: Revolutionary songs written & sung by workers & students in struggle." Source: Library of Congress ( BackStory is funded in part by our listeners. You can help keep the episodes coming by supporting the show:
Today, the word zoom has become synonymous with an application millions of people are using to learn, teach and work. COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our lives, including how we teach and how we learn. So what does this all mean for the future of classroom learning? And where does it fit into the broader history of higher education?   On this episode of BackStory, Brian dives into the topic of teaching and where the virtual college classroom fits into the history of higher education in the United States. As Jonathan Zimmerman ( , author of the forthcoming book, The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, tells Brian, Zoom and virtual learning are hardly the first time college students and professors have adapted to new technologies in the classroom.
This week, environmentalism was in the spotlight, thanks to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Over the decades, environmentalism has adapted to new challenges, like increasing levels of greenhouse gases and a swinging pendulum when it comes to federal policy. But the 1980s exemplified a notable and often consequential shift in how people - from protestors to the president - approached environmental issues. So on this episode of BackStory, Ed and Brian dig into the 1980s and explore how actions in both federal policy and grassroots movements shaped environmentalism.
By his own account, and by many others as well, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was Lyndon Johnson’s greatest achievement – the jewel in the crown of the Great Society, and widely considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. This episode, "Give Us the Ballot," will focus on the extraordinarily eventful eight-month period — January to August 1965 — when the battle for Voting Rights was joined and ultimately fought to a successful conclusion. The outcome was hard won, and in doubt up until the last frantic weeks of negotiation and maneuvering. Why and how Johnson prevailed, where so many before him had failed, is the central story in this episode, which looks at the complex and precarious alliance forged between the President on the inside, and Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement on the outside.  Source notes: This episode includes interview excerpts from Washington University Libraries, drawn from the Henry Hampton Collection ( . This digitized resource includes complete video interviews with Civil Rights Movement leaders, known and unknown, captured for the influential and award-winning documentary film, Eyes on the Prize ( . LBJ and the Great Society was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and distributed by PRX.
As BackStory moves towards the end of its production, we’ve asked our hosts to select memorable moments from the show that we’re publishing as episodes once per month.  Since joining BackStory in 2017, Nathan Connolly has interviewed a ton of different people about everything from Bruce Lee to Bison. But a handful of conversations are particularly memorable to Nathan because they unpacked issues that he cares deeply about.
In this special bonus episode, Ed talks with David K. Randall ( , author of Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague. David tells Ed about how Dr. Rupert Blue defied conventions to get an outbreak of the plague under control in San Francisco during the early 20th century. It’s a story that can offer us some important lessons as we wrestle with our own public health crisis today.     Music: Chainlink Melody ( by Podington Bear Going Forward, Looking Back ( by Podington Bear Winter Walk ( by Podington Bear Massive ( by Podington Bear Pounded Piano ( by Podington Bear Light Touch ( by Podington Bear Image: Screenshot of headline on page 5 of the Oroville Daily Register, Oroville, California, Wednesday, November 27, 1907. Source: (
In these trying times, we’re all trying to stay well mentally, emotionally, and physically. Naturally, that got us thinking about the history of health in America. It also reminded us that maybe we could all use a break from thinking about COVID-19. So this week BackStory explores the history of wellness, a story which involves breakfast cereal, aerobics, and Sigmund Freud.
As BackStory wraps up production, we’ve asked our hosts to select memorable moments from the show.   A founding host of the show, Brian Balogh has discussed a range of topics with a lot of different people - academic historians, museum curators, and even politicians. But some of his favorite conversations have been with everyday people who have lived and engaged with history, sometimes in surprising ways.  So in this edition of the “Best of BackStory,” Brian brings you three of his favorite interviews from his time at BackStory. You’ll hear from a member of a prison work crew, and find out what life is like behind the walls of a Catholic convent. Finally, you’ll learn about the American twist on a classic Mexican dish.
Pauli Murray might be one of the most influential but little-known figures in modern American history. Born in 1910 in Baltimore, Murray, who was a prominent lawyer and activist, went on to shape American law, society and culture throughout much of the 20th century. Publicly, Murray is remembered for contributions to feminist legal thought and in particular, the concept of “Jane Crow,” which recognized how black women struggle with racism and sexism. Meanwhile, in private, Pauli Murray’s fluid gender and sexual identity clashed with the era’s rigid categories. All of this made Pauli Murray a steadfast proponent of equality and a committed fighter against injustice of all kinds. It even led Murray to the ordained ministry, where the fight for a reconciled humanity could be waged in the spiritual realm. So for that reason -- and many more -- this week on BackStory, Ed and Joanne explore the life and legacy of Pauli Murray.  *Note: Pauli Murray often self-identified as a woman and used “she” and “her” pronouns. You can see this in public writings, like Murray’s autobiography. But, in private, Murray grappled with a nuanced gender identity. This identity was often at odds with the strict gender and sexual constructs of the 20th century, and it was often in flux. For that reason, the question of pronouns is a complicated one in the case of Pauli Murray. So after careful consideration, we decided to opt out of using any pronouns when referring to Pauli Murray throughout the episode. Instead, you’ll hear us say “Pauli Murray,” “Murray” or sometimes just “Pauli.” But you’ll hear our guests alternate between different pronouns. We’ve let each guest decide for themselves which pronoun they think best fits when talking about Pauli.
What’s Ray Saying? is a podcast that takes a deeper view into Black life in America by examining the intersection of history, narrative, and experience.    This episode, “Blacks and Indians,” explores the complex relationship between Black Americans and Native Americans and attempts to separate  fact from fiction.    Ray Christian has an MA in Public History and an EdS/ EdD in Education. His stories have been heard on the Moth Radio Hour, Snap Judgment, Spooked and the Risk podcast. Learn more about Ray Christian at his website:   Find out more about What’s Ray Saying?:
Comments (18)


I'm so sad that BackStory will be no more. it seems all of my favorite podcasts are ending. thank you for educating me through the years.

Feb 2nd

Hardy Pottinger

The comment made early in the podcast about the need to make Seasame Street appeal to both children and adults reminded me of my Army days at Ft Ord in 1970. Our office, composed mainly of young engineers, had a small TV. About 10:00 every morning a new thing called Sesame Street was aired. In no time at all all work would cease and about 10 of us would gather around that little TV and laugh out loud at the antics of the muppets. "This show is brought to you by the letter F". What a hoot that was! Thanks for the memory.

Nov 22nd


I love this podcasts. quick, interesting segments tied together with a common thread!

Oct 29th
Reply (1)

kris knows

what's with all the dead air

Oct 20th

Jodi Bishop-Phipps

Excellent episode! The Spanish Flu Epidemic is fascinating yet largely forgotten by everyone. Thanks for bringing that time to life for me.

Dec 2nd

Mark Powelson

great show. But you guys don't have to laugh so much. It's fascinating material without needing a laugh track. More people actually love history than you might guess. Doesn't need to be faux silly.

Aug 17th


Where's Nathan? I love hearing his perspective in each episode.

Jul 14th

Julie Gritton

If it's a rebroadcast it should be marked as one: i.e. last week's myths.

Mar 10th

oops i stole your nose


Mar 8th

Scott Bibeau

im a day listener and love the topics , thanks

Feb 21st

Candan Shay

I just downloaded this app I'm looking all through it for the issues that I deal with and that would be the family court system and women who the silence themselves with the abuse they have encountered in their life I looked all over where where are are podcast on that just curious

Nov 15th

iTunes User

As an avid public radio listener, I've always wondered why there aren't any HISTORY shows in the public radio lineup. Until now. BackStory does what few other news media outlets manage to do: it shows up every week with the historical context to that week's big news. And it does so in an extremely listenable way, with high production values and a healthy dose of humor. Highly recommended for anybody with even a passing interest in American history. (Also recommended for those who couldn't care less -- this show will make you care!)

Aug 30th
Reply (1)

iTunes User

The American History Guys are the best in the biz when it comes to taking apart a modern issue and putting its historical pieces back together in a way that's insightful, accessible, and honest. Most importantly, they clearly enjoy their weekly adventures into our past (and back) and are more than happy to have us listeners along for the ride. But be forewarned: Thought is required; mindless entertainment this ain't.

Aug 30th
Reply (1)

iTunes User

Public radio provides the podcasting community with some of its greatest gems, and BackStory is the latest and greatest podcast for your listening pleasure. Each week Ed, Brian and Peter engage us in a lively discussion of current affairs, and color the interaction with analysis and anecdotes from American history. The three hosts complement each other nicely both in knowledge and in personality, and no matter what the topic you'll leave feeling better informed (and inexplicably happier - I think it's Ed's southern drawl). Highly recommended for anyone with the history bug - or anyone who wants some lively and interesting listening for the ride to work!

Aug 30th

oops i stole your nose

great show

Jun 18th
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