Newbell Niles Puckett was a sociologist who wrote the landmark study Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, one of the earliest inventories of African American belief.
Puckett was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on 8 July 1897. His father, Willis Niles Puckett, was a mason who started a brick factory in the city. Working at the factory brought the younger Puckett into contact with many African Americans, who helped him with his later research. After completing an undergraduate degree at Mississippi College, Puckett continued his education at Yale University, where he received a master’s and doctorate in sociology. He began teaching at Western University (now Case Western University) in Cleveland in 1922.
While at Yale, Puckett became interested in incorporating his knowledge of African American culture into his work as a sociologist. He decided to focus his dissertation on the belief systems of African Americans in the South. Puckett returned to Lowndes County several times during the early 1920s to collect data from local residents, gathering religious songs, grave-decorating traditions, voodoo practices, and folk medicine customs. The University of North Carolina Press published his revised dissertation as Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926), which received highly favorable reviews, including praise from culture critic H. L. Mencken and prominent sociologist Charles S. Johnson. Puckett was one of the earliest folklore scholars to utilize photography as part of his documentary work, and the book features several notable images taken by Puckett.
Folk Beliefs has become an important source of data for researchers in many different disciplines, although the theoretical component of the book has fallen out of favor. Puckett and many of his early twentieth-century colleagues advocated the theory of cultural evolution, which contended that cultures evolved from a primitive state to a developed one. Puckett’s paternalistic view of African American culture garnered criticism in later decades.
Puckett spent the rest of his career doing fieldwork in a number of areas. He amassed large collections of data on African American surnames, Ohio superstitions and folk beliefs, and religious traditions of African Americans in the South. Puckett did not publish large-scale works using this research during his lifetime; however, support from his estate allowed other scholars to organize and publish his research on surnames and Ohio superstitions after his death on 21 February 1967.
- George Kummer, in Popular Beliefs and Superstitions: A Compendium of American Folklore, ed. Wayland D. Hand, Anna Casetta, and Sondra B. Thiederman, vol. 3 (1981)
- Patrick B. Mullen “Race Relations in Folklore Research: The Case of Newbell Niles Puckett,” presentation at the 1994 American Folklore Society Meeting
- William H. Wiggins Jr., in Made by Hand: Mississippi Folk Art, ed. Patti Carr Black (1980)