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Atlanta Loses Its Greatest Listener: Cliff Kuhn, 1952-2015

It is with deep regret that we mark the passing of Clifford M. Kuhn, associate professor of History at Georgia State University and executive director of the Oral History Association, who died on Sunday after a devastating and unexpected heart attack.

Anyone who knew Cliff understood what it was for a human being to be passionate about history. Cliff was no career climber, no indulger of superficial gestures or academic fads. He didn’t care about money or fame; as the great poet and essayist Wendell Berry once put it, there are “boomers” and “stickers” in life—and Cliff was definitely a sticker. He cared deeply about learning, and he made his career at Georgia State beginning in 1994, after having earned a PhD at UNC Chapel Hill and contributing oral histories for the seminal labor history landmark Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (1987).

GSU, of course, fit Cliff like a glove—its populist mission of educating a vast and diverse student body, many of whom are the first in their families to have a chance at higher education, perfectly suited Cliff’s zeal for teaching history and expanding its reach to the widest possible audience. The great city of Atlanta was his laboratory; he rode his bike to the university from his home in Virginia Highlands; he took job candidates (like myself) on engrossing tours of the A’s social geography, and regularly regaled any comers with his frequent tours of downtown and the tragic history of the 1906 race riot. His 1990 book Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948 (UGA), co-authored with Harlon E. Joye and E. Bernard West, provided an invaluable repository of knowledge and insight about the history of the South’s “Empire City” during the days of its rapid ascent in the early twentieth century.

Cliff’s other projects were just as accomplished and meaningful. His 2001 book Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta’s Fulton Mills (UNC) brought a fresh perspective to one of the New South’s most pivotal labor conflicts, providing, in the words of Vanderbilt’s David Carlton, a look at “not only the history of southern industrial labor, but also the tangled interplay of race, class, and ethnicity, in the Progressive-era urban South.” (Writing in The American Historical Review, Joseph McCartin praised the book as “meticulously researched… balanced and insightful… accessible and engaging.”) Like his colleague and friend Michelle Brattain, Cliff helped bring new depth and complexity to the often misunderstood labor history of the South—a vital theme for both the scholar and Georgia State, which has been home to the Southern Labor Archives since 1971, an institution that Cliff supported with completely typical gusto and enthusiasm. Toward the end of his life, he was working on a book about the path-breaking Agnes Scott sociologist Arthur Raper, part of which was published as a lovely piece in Southern Cultures in 2012.

(From the Spring 2015 History Department newsletter)

Indeed, Cliff was one of the most avid supporters of opening up history to new audiences and rethinking how we define scholarship in creative new ways. He spoke regularly on Atlanta’s NPR affiliate WABE, illuminating the past through regular segments on critical events on This Day in History. Cliff pushed hard for public history, digital humanities, and other new and innovative forms of scholarship to “count” in terms of faculty tenure and promotion, and he relished projects that escaped the dead hand of traditional academic writing.

Late in life, the pride of Cliff’s career was the Oral History Association, which he helped bring to Georgia State in 2013 and took leadership of as its first executive director. He was tireless in his advocacy for oral history, and he was able to enjoy in his final days a taste of victory in the federal government’s impending revision of requirements for Institutional Review Board supervision of historical interviews, aka “human subjects research”—a bureaucratic system originally designed to prevent abuse in biomedical research, but which Cliff and many others believed to be potentially stifling for the work of oral historians.

Of course, Cliff was not just a superlative scholar and teacher; he was a devoted partner to Kathie Klein and father to Josh and Gabe Klein-Kuhn, as well as a kind and supportive colleague. He was the very first person I met at Georgia State, when I nervously stepped out of Inman Park’s historic King-Keith House where the department had put me up, eager to impress the faculty member who was slated to give me a tour of the city. In retrospect, I realize that these tours are partly designed to sell a candidate on the idea of moving to Atlanta if they are in fact offered the job, but at the time I just thought of it as another part of the interview process. Cliff, no doubt, thought of it as neither as a sales pitch nor a test—he just wanted to share his oodles of knowledge and love for the city with a new friend. And as a junior faculty member, I always enjoyed resolute support from my vastly more accomplished senior colleague.

The worlds of urban history, oral history, southern history, and Georgia State itself have suffered an inconsolable loss. We will miss you, Cliff. You were one of the real good ones.