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.


Charlottesville, VA




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.




145 Ednam Dr. Charlottesville, VA 22903 434-924-3296


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331: The End of the Road: BackStory and the History of Finales in America

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.


Teaser: BackStory and the History of Finales in America

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.


330: Best of BackStory: The Time the People Picked

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.


Introducing: Seizing Freedom

Coming Feb 2021… In most history classes, students learn that the Emancipation Proclamation and Union victories “freed the slaves.” But ending slavery in America required much more than battlefield victories and official declarations. Black people battled for their own freedom, taking incredible risks for a country that had actively denied their right to it. And after the Civil War, they made freedom real by organizing for equality and justice. On Seizing Freedom, you’ll hear stories of freedom taking and freedom making, in the words of those who did both. Drawing on stories from diaries, newspapers, letters, and speeches, we’ll recreate voices that have been muted time and time again. This excerpt is from the first episode of the series. It tells the story of those who escaped slavery to enlist with the Union Army—an army that wasn’t particularly interested in having them. Subscribe to the entire series here.


329: Great, Small and Other Expectations: Charles Dickens and His History with America

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


328: The Clue of the Blue Bottle from "The Last Archive"

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.


327: Another Burden to Bear: A History of Racial Health Disparities in America

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 Capital by Martin Summers


326: Mystery, Murder, and Mayhem: A History of True Crime in America

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.


325: American Empire: From Scene on Radio

“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.


324: Best of BackStory: The Time Joanne Freeman Went to Congress

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.


276: Red in the Stars and Stripes?: A History of Socialism in America

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:


323: Zooming Ahead: How Virtual Learning is Shaping the College Classroom

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.


322: 1980s Environmentalism and How the Reagan-Era Shaped the Natural World

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.


321: Give Us the Ballot: From LBJ and the Great Society

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.


320: Best of BackStory: The Time Nathan Connolly Had A Close Encounter

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.


319: Overcoming An Outbreak: How San Francisco Survived the Plague

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:


281: Mind, Body and Spirit: The History of Wellness In America

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.


318: Best of BackStory: The Time Brian Balogh Went to a Monastery

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.