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

Cliff Kuhn

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.

Cliff Kuhn and Michael Baker 1906 race riot tour
(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.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

43 thoughts

  1. What a wonderful tribute to Cliff. I can only imagine the void that Cliff’s death will leave in the GSU History Department. He will be deeply missed.

  2. Alex, this is a great and fitting remembrance. To honor Cliff, we should all ride a bike, coach a kids’ soccer team and make sure the least coordinated kid has as great an experience as the top goal scorer, have a meaningful conversation with someone important to us, laugh heartily, or do something nice for a grad student. Or, even better, do all five.

    1. So well said! I remember he took me to the park where he coached soccer during my campus visit years ago. He sure loved him some “futbol”

  3. Alex, this is one of the most beautiful tributes I’ve ever read. It is obvious how important Cliff was to you…and to all those whose lives he touched. I met him for the first time, by chance, at the Atlanta History Center shortly after I moved here in 1995, and by chance and good fortune he became one of my early and long-standing Atlanta clients. (I transcribe oral history interviews.) I am glad to have counted him among my friends, though we hadn’t been in touch much in recent years, alas, which makes his passing even more painful to me.

  4. Awesome guy that really pointed me in the right direction on my major, knowing only shortly before we left ATL at the end of July, that he’d unintentionally shot me right into grad school.

  5. Alex, this is one of the most beautiful tributes I’ve ever read. It is obvious how important Cliff was to you…as he was to all whose lives he touched. I met him by chance soon after I moved to Atlanta in 1995, at the Atlanta History Center, and by chance he became one of my best and longest-standing clients. (I transcribe oral history interviews.) He was a dear friend and colleague, though we’d not been in close touch in recent years, which makes his passing all the more painful.

  6. Oh, such sad news. Cliff was a brilliant lecturer who engaged each audience of teachers by first thanking us for our contribution to education. He elevated everyone of his students by his humor, love of history and passion for teaching. I’m so glad I knew him.

  7. Lovely tribute, Alex. Thanks. I was a research assistant for him for the two years I was at GSU doing my MA. I helped organize and catalog oral histories in the Georgia Government Documentation Project (Georgia political history).

  8. A beautiful and accurate tribute, Dr. Cummings. I must share the following with you. Not only was Dr. Clifford Kuhn my current Dissertation Director, he and I officially met when Dr. Glenn T. Eskew introduced us due to the fact that my maternal grandmother, the late Lorena Wilkes Wilson, was a student at Clark Normal School (later Clark College) when the Atlanta Race Riot took place in 1906. Dr. Kuhn made me a part of the centennial commemoration of the Atlanta Race Riot in 2006. While I have received some supportive messages from GSU faculty stating that they will help me get through with my dissertation, it still feels weird that the man who was directing my dissertation is now gone. I did not even get to tell him about my recent trip as an SREB Scholar to its annual Teaching and Mentoring Conference. And I recently learned from newly minted Dr. John E. Williams that whenever he and Dr. Kuhn were discussing research that Dr. Kuhn would bring up my name and the research I was doing. I recently served as an Oral Historian for the GSU Digital Library’s Planning Atlanta Project due to Dr. Kuhn’s recommendation, and was glad when he told me that they had nothing but good things to say about my abilities at conducting Oral History interviews. I learned all the best ways to conduct Oral History interviews largely from Dr. Kuhn; and for that I will be eternally grateful.

    1. I am also a Ph.D. candidate in history at GSU. I took Dr. Kuhn’s class on oral history. His passion for the field was infectious. He always remembered me as one of his students when he saw me and had kind words to say.

  9. What an amazing tribute to Cliff! Cliff was Atlanta’s scholar. This is a tremendous loss for all who study Atlanta. He will be missed.

  10. This is a fine tribute. I got to know Cliff only a bit, when i was a visiting scholar in Atlanta and just beginning a project on the region, but he was extremely generous with his vast knowledge of the city’s history and its archives. My condolences to his family, his colleagues, and the people of Atlanta.

  11. I am devastated and shocked to hear about Professor Kuhn’s passing. He will be terribly missed in the history world and at Georgia State University.

  12. Like everybody, I’m deeply shocked and saddened by Cliff’s death. I had not seen him in years–he was brand new at GSU when I completed my diss. in 1993, and probably the last time I talked to him at length was at Gary Fink’s retirement party. But occasional emails kept us in touch (usually when I needed his help), and then last month he called me out of retirement to chair a session at the OHA meeting in Tampa. The best part of that was a nice long chat with my ever ebullient friend afterward–he really was the world’s best listener, and such a steady, kind, thoughtful man. GSU, and Cliff’s friend’s far and wide, have lost a fine scholar and one really great guy. Thank you to the new colleague who wrote this fine tribute.

  13. I’m shocked and deeply saddened to learn of Cliff’s passing. It’s a huge loss to Georgia State and Atlanta, but also to the larger world of oral and public history.

  14. Thank you, Alex. A lovely and loving tribute. It is hard to think of Cliff gone because particularly when I remember him in visits to Atlanta, he was bigger and more full of life than anything he was showing me. Everything was interesting to him, and every new thing in that city a chance for him to expand his inclusive vision.

  15. Great tribute to Cliff. I will sorely miss him and our encounters in the hall.The loss to our students, to oral history, and to Atlanta is enormous.

  16. Alex Sayf Cummings poignantly remembers Cliff as Atlanta’s “greatest listener,” but I cherish him as one of the great talkers as well. A whirling dervish of energy and ideas (and no slouch on the dance floor), he digested history and politics and baseball and Atlanta and of course family with gusto, and, at least to my recollection, he was never at a loss for words to recount, describe, or make sense of it all. His passions and deepest commitments were already formed when he became my first graduate student in Chapel Hill. To be sure he grew over the years in sophistication and range of interests and became the leader in fields he was just entering when our paths first crossed, yet he stayed remarkably centered, communicating a deep comfort about who he was and the world of loved ones around him that brought (and still brings) an automatic smile to my face.

    1. Dr. Fink, it’s an honor just to have you read our blog. We loved Cliff too, and you obviously did a great job mentoring him!

  17. Dr. Kuhn meant so much to both me, as a history student and teacher, my family, and Atlanta. His impact on all of us is immeasurable, and fortunately, due to his writings and recordings, his impact will be infinite. He taught both my sister, Tami Willadsen, and me, and even attended her memorial and reception last year. He worked closely with our friend, Amy Meyer Burns on her research of the old Antioch Church in Candler Park. He guided me through my project on the proposed 485 and Stone Mtn Expressway road fights in the 70s and 80s. His guided bus tour through Atlanta was the highlight of my grad school experience. RIP Dr. Kuhn.

  18. This tribute captures Cliff’s passion for history and for life. He was a good friend of many years, always open and ready to talk about his work and his family, as well as to listen. His many achievements speak of his dedication to social justice. It was a joy to hear about his latest project, always told with great enthusiasm. We will miss him.

  19. Thank you for this heartfelt tribute to such a unique and amazing person, teacher, father, and much-loved, and much-respected Atlanta icon. Many Atlantans were fortunate and privileged enough to interact personally with the very approachable Cliff Kuhn, while the widest swath were educated in his classroom, or knew him through his voice on the radio. As a new MA student, either through fate, or serendipitous happy accident, I was randomly assigned as research assistant to Cliff for two years. His Oral History class inspired me to become an Oral Historian, and Cliff directed both my thesis and dissertation. Cliff and I became friends over the years we collaborated, and he spoke often of his love of music, his son, and his wife. Cliff cared deeply about my research project, and when I apologized profusely for submitting dissertation chapters more than seventy pages in length, his immediate response was “I can’t wait to receive the next one. Let them be as long as the story needs to tell itself.”

    And then, after I was teaching at Oglethorpe University, one spring Sunday I took about twenty students to Cliff’s 1906 Atlanta Race Riot walking tour. On the train to Five Points Station, I waxed eloquent about Cliff, and impressed upon the students how fortunate they were to be guided by such a world-renowned historian and scholar. And when Cliff arrived to lead the tour, in true Cliff Kuhn form, he waxed eloquent about me to my students, who shared later that they were so impressed that he was not pompous, nor egotistical, in any way. And that was the essence of Cliff Kuhn: always more interested in the other person and her story, always deflecting the conversation from himself. And Cliff was the same person with everyone: famous scholars, prominent citizens, children, the homeless, men, women. Cliff embodied equality, and demonstrated a genuinely democratic way of interacting with everyone, regardless of color, gender, age, or economic station. Cliff’s curiosity, coupled with his lack of judgment, and patently apparent empathy and humanity made everyone relax and tell her story. He put people at ease, because everyone sensed that Cliff’s humaneness issued forth from the core of who Cliff Kuhn was. No one was ever cheated. Everyone always got the genuine Cliff Kuhn.

    In the years after completing my Ph.D., Cliff always served on the panels, and introduced me, when I presented papers at OHA conferences. I also ran into him at Occupy Atlanta, and he beamed with pride and delight that my Oral History students were interviewing the movement’s participants all around us. And I am now pleased that he witnessed firsthand this ripple effect of his having tossed a pebble into a pond. Cliff lived and breathed Oral History. Cliff Kuhn was the very embodiment of Oral History. And Cliff will remain ever-unforgettable: a fire that cannot ever be fully extinguished.

    No one who knew Cliff Kuhn could ever forget his larger-than-life presence: those bushy, dancing, Rasputin eyebrows, those twinkling eyes, that razor-sharp intellect, and the amazing speed with which he typed with only his two index fingers!

    Atlanta has been gray and dark recently, and I now know why. It’s because one of the city’s greatest lights was extinguished on Sunday. Cliff will be greatly missed, and Atlanta has lost one of its greatest promoters. Yet Cliff Kuhn will always be in the world, in each of us he taught and mentored, because he ignited a flame in us: a passion for Atlanta, for Oral History, for the uniqueness of every story. Cliff walked the walk, and showed us how to journey through life paying attention to the most humble everyman amongst us, because his story, too, is also unique, and worthy of recording.

    But more than this, Cliff believed that every human being could know his worth, and know that his life mattered and counted for something, through the telling and recording of his story. And through this process of Oral History, Cliff maintained, each person could know that he had offered something to the world, which would also validate each person as a unique individual. For Cliff, Oral History was much more than the mere telling and recording of a story. Cliff believed that Oral History was a mechanism to also recognize and validate the self: a way to establish each person’s identity and presence in the world. And Cliff argued that Oral History could provide a marker for each person: that he was born, that he lived, that he mattered, that he contributed.

    Cliff is no longer with us in person, but yet he lives, and will live forever: in the memories of everyone who knew him. And I know he’s smiling about that, and sees it as a fitting tribute to the father of Oral History in the United States.

  20. What a person! With all his contributions, which included multiple publications, why, pray tell, was he only an associate professor? Does this reflect a bias against oral history–or was something else involved?

    1. I can’t claim to know the details of anything, but my guess would be that it’s because his first book (Living Atlanta) came out before he came to GSU, and they generally only tend to “count” things you’ve published while at the university for promotion and tenure.

      1. Point taken. However, the totality of his contributions to the profession are so impressive, diverse, and longstanding that it is still hard to understand how he topped out only as an associate professor. There must be a backstory to this. Perhaps someone knows and will share.

  21. oh my goodness. just learned of Cliff’s passing. please post the notice of services. i last saw Cliff at the king Center during the laying of flowers for Julian Bond. You have written a wonderful tribute to this good man and great scholar

  22. The many tributes above capture the essence of the dear friend I have known since were high school classmates together in the late sixties in Princeton, NJ. Cliff was the most caring person I have ever known, and when I was with him, I always wanted to be a better person. We got to spend a few days together a year ago when the OHA Annual Meeting was in Madison, and I felt that I had to soak up all that I could of this amazing person, because I had no idea when we would see each other again. I am so grateful for that time together. My deepest condolences go to his wife, Kathie, his sons, Josh and Gabe, his mother, Estelle, and his brothers, Nick and Jonathan, as well as his nephews and (I think?) one niece. The world will not see his like again.

    1. I also knew Cliff very well at Princeton High School; to everything Mark Lindquist wrote I will add his passion about every aspect of life! We were political activists at the high school together in spring 1970 after the Ken State shootings. It was a great and meaningful time!

      1. Hey Glenn. I am hoping to go to Cliff’s Memorial service in Atlanta in December, and Bruce Barratt may come, too. Wanna join us? If so, I’ll keep you abreast of details. Cliff had too huge an impact on ours lives not for us to at least try to be part of his legacy.

  23. With Thanksgiving approaching, I find myself thinking more about Cliff’s passing, re-reading this beautiful tribute. Cliff was tremendously welcoming to me when I arrived in Atlanta a year and a half ago, ready to teach in the Heritage Preservation program at GSU. We traded stories of growing up in the Princeton area and finding ourselves in the South. He was so wise and so kind. He took a personal interest in students and junior colleagues that is most unusual and much appreciated. Everyone on staff at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State had a unique relationship with Cliff. I’m just so sad that mine had just begun.

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