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

Historians in the News
tags: obituary, 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 Culturesin 2012. ...

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