Clifford M. Kuhn, 63: Historian was people’s storyteller

Atlanta historian Clifford M. Kuhn always felt that everybody had a story worth telling.

A nationally renowned expert in Southern and oral history, Kuhn was known for his passionate and populist approach to presenting history that was inclusive and accessible. He sought out people from every walk of life – from the powerful and the famous to minorities and poor citizens whose voices often went unheard.

During more than two decades as an associate professor at Georgia State University, Kuhn became a highly respected scholar, mentor, influential public historian and sought-after speaker.

“Cliff Kuhn was truly a historian for the people,” Georgia State history department chairwoman Michelle Brattain said in a statement. “He possessed an incredible wealth of knowledge, a boundless intellectual curiosity and a gift for communicating the wonder and complexity of history to all audiences.”

Kuhn died Nov. 8 of a heart attack at the age of 63. A memorial service will be held Sunday, Dec. 13, at 1:00 p.m. in the Speaker's Auditorium at the Georgia State University Student Center at 55 Gilmer St, Atlanta.

Although born and bred up North, Kuhn loved his adopted hometown and devoted his life to digging into Atlanta’s past.

“I was floored that a guy who was not from Atlanta became symbolic with Atlanta history and knew more about it than just about anyone else,” said author and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jim Auchmutey. “He was indispensable in telling the modern Atlanta story.”

Born on June 14, 1952, in Princeton, N.J., Kuhn was the oldest of three brothers.

His father, a noted mathematician, taught at Princeton University. His mother was a fair housing advocate and worked for the American Civil Liberties Union.

After graduating from Yale University in 1974, Kuhn taught for a year in the Atlanta Public Schools and worked on WRFG’s “Living Atlanta” oral history series. He also contributed to the radio documentary “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”

He received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1993. The following year, he began teaching at Georgia State, riding his bike to the college from his Virginia-Highland home.

In addition to mentoring aspiring historians and history buffs, he also became an adviser on Georgia’s social studies standards and a consultant to journalists, educational institutions and community organizations.

He served as co-chairman of the content committee for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and often spoke at churches and elementary schools.

For the past eight years, he regaled public radio listeners with his monthly “This Day in History” series with former WABE “Morning Edition” host Steve Goss.

“He was a serious historian, but he had a great sense of humor,” Goss said. “Cliff believed that history was everyone’s story, whether you were a senator or robber baron or an individual who worked at the Fulton Cotton Mill in the late 1800s. I learned a lot from our sessions, and I’m grateful for that.”

After helping to organize the centennial commemoration of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, Kuhn led monthly downtown tours of sites associated with the riot up until his death.

“As an African-American, he helped me appreciate the oral history tradition, which was important to my ancestors who were prohibited from learning to read and write,” said independent historian Hermina Glass-Hill, a former student who later worked with Kuhn on the race riot remembrance. “He taught me to embrace the African-American dialect of the South and not be ashamed of it. I have a deep passion for history, and I owe that to him.”

Kuhn was named executive director of Oral History Association’s national office after it relocated to Georgia State in 2013.

His publications include the 1990 book “Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948” (co-authored with Harlon E. Joye and E. Bernard West) and “Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta’s Fulton Mills,” released in 2001.

For his work, Kuhn received the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities, the Turner Downtown Community Leadership Award and the Martin Luther King Torch of Peace Award.

A sports enthusiast, he coached his sons in soccer, served on the board of the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association and was a devoted Atlanta Braves fan.

He also loved cooking and playing charades and enjoyed 31 years of monthly dinners and fellowship as a member of a local eating group.

“We were deeply rooted in community,” his wife Kathie Klein said. “Every person has an important story. He was eager to share what he heard and learned with everybody. I will miss his enthusiasm, his warmth and generosity.”

In addition to his wife, Kuhn is survived by his sons Joshua Klein-Kuhn of Portland, Ore., and Gabriel Klein-Kuhn of Nashville; his mother Estelle Kuhn of New York; and brothers Nicholas Kuhn of Charlottesville, Va., and Jonathan Kuhn of New York.

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