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Remembering Cliff Kuhn

This piece was written by SOHP Founding Director Jacquelyn Dowd Hall.

cliff kuhnOn November 8th, an SOHP stalwart and dear friend Cliff Kuhn died of a heart attack in Atlanta, GA. Cliff was an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, where for more than two decades he has inspired a love of history in students. He was 63 years old.

I’ve known him since shortly after he graduated from Yale in 1974. He was one of a number of young people fascinated by the South who came through town and slept on our couch in the early 1970s. In a sense he never left—well, he left our couch, but not the South. He got a Ph.D. in history at UNC Chapel Hill and was part of the team that conducted the interviews and wrote the initial working papers that led to the publication of Like a Family: the Making of a Cotton Mill World in 1987.

He was a font of boundless energy, enthusiasm, and generosity. He loved to talk. At the same time, the tributes pouring out of Atlanta rightly say that the city “has lost it greatest listener.

Passionate about local history, Cliff recorded hundreds of interviews with the people of Atlanta and frequently appeared on independent radio and the local NPR affiliate, WABE. He worked tirelessly to preserve the memory of Atlanta’s 1906 race riot and led walking tours of Atlanta that educated perhaps thousands of people about that event as well as about the city’s labor history. In 1990 he published Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948 (UGA), co-authored with Harlon E. Joye and E. Bernard West. He was a recipient of the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities, the Turner Downtown Community Leadership Award, and the Martin Luther King Torch of Peach Award, among many other honors.

In 2001, he published Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta’s Fulton Mills (UNC), which David Carlton (Vanderbilt) described as an exploration of “not only the history of southern industrial labor, but also the tangled interplay of race, class, and ethnicity, in the Progressive-era urban South.” At the time of his death, Cliff was working on a book about the sociologist Arthur Raper and had published an eloquent article based on that work in Southern Cultures.

In 2013, Cliff helped to bring the Oral History Association (OHA) to Georgia State University and became its first executive director. Cliff was an irreplaceable advocate for oral history and public history in the classroom, the academy, and the community. The OHA is struggling with how to go on without him.

His wife, Kathie Klein, and their sons Gabe and Josh will be in our hearts. A memorial service will be held next month in Atlanta.