Hughie Lee-Smith was born in Eustis, Florida, lived in Atlanta until 1925, when he moved to Cleveland. He began attending art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and later graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1938. While in Cleveland, he became active at Karamu House as an actor, dancer, set designer, and teacher. He worked in the Cleveland WPA project as a printmaker. Over the years he moved to South Carolina, Detroit, Chicago, New York and Alburquerque, continuing to teach and paint, and winning awards such as the Emily Lowe Award and the Purchase Prize. He was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1967.