BackStory

The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

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Keys to the Kingdom

By Andrew Parsons One Friday in 1976, a group of men broke into the Dix mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. They weren’t vandals or thieves. In fact, these men were there to pray. The men, recent immigrants from Yemen and Palestine, were as shocked to find the mosque closed on a Friday as a devout Christian might be […]

The Writing on the Wall

Around 1810, a man began writing in a mysterious script on the walls of his jail cell in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fascinated onlookers soon came to marvel, and to guess what the symbols meant. Eventually, someone identified the language as Arabic, and the man as an escaped slave named Omar ibn Said. Omar, who had […]

Fishy Business

When you go to a science museum, like the Smithsonian or the Museum of Natural History, there’s an understanding that what you see is what you get. Displays are clearly labeled. If there’s an animal specimen on display, there’s probably a little plaque explaining where that animal came from, what it eats, and so on. […]

Fake Money, Real Problems

Today’s consumers can be pretty confident that the cash in their pockets or the numbers shown in their bank accounts represent real money, legal tender that businesses anywhere will accept. Not so in the America of the 1800’s. Among the many things that have changed between this day and that was the money that people […]

Lost at Sea

  The classic tale American schoolchildren learn about Christopher Columbus goes something like this: Columbus, a revolutionary thinker, realized that the earth was round. And if the earth was round, as he proposed, he could reach Asia by sailing either east or west. Having convinced the skeptical Spanish, he set off, overcoming the doubts of […]

Hail, Columbia!

What does the United States really look like? You can describe the physical landscape, the rivers, the mountains, the Grand Canyon. You can talk about its citizens, both famous and ordinary. But if you had to choose one person who embodied the whole nation…well, you might pick this guy: Uncle Sam has been used as an allegorical […]

A new home – but only if you work for it

By Andrew Parsons     It seems like the kind of half-baked idea straight off of an internet comment board: let’s round up all the orphan kids in New York City, put them on a train to the midwest and have them work on farms for families out there. But back in the 1850s, orphan […]

Riots and Religion at Mr. Jefferson’s University

College students today might have a reputation for wild parties and late-night carousing. But, as most college professors will tell you, in class, apart from the odd student checking Facebook or Twitter, today’s college students tend to be a fairly well-behaved bunch. Things were a wee bit different during the early years of the University […]

Into the Not-So-Wild

  What is the wilderness, exactly? For most of us, it means land untouched by humans,  allowed to exist in a state of nature. A place “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain… retaining its primeval character and influence,” in the words of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which set aside […]

The report that could have stopped Ferguson

  If you’re a member of the United States Congress, chances are you spend a good chunk of your waking life in meetings. Committee meetings, town hall meetings, meeting with donors, meetings with fellow Senators or Congressmen, special commission meetings. So, perhaps it wasn’t so unusual for Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma to get a […]