Diplomat, scholar and author Hugh Heyne Smythe was born on August 19, 1913 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother was a housemaid and his father, who died when Smythe was three years old, was a mailman. One of five siblings, at age six Smythe was forced to start work as a paperboy to help support his struggling family. In 1936, upon earning a degree in sociology from Virginia State College for Negroes (now Virginia State University) where he won varsity letters in basketball and track, Smythe made his first unsuccessful attempt to be employed in the U.S. Department of State. Fortunately, his outstanding academic record allowed him to continue his studies and acquire a master’s degree in sociology at Atlanta University. In 1939 Smythe married Mabel Murphy, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. He then served two years in the Army during World War II. In 1946 he completed his doctorate in cultural anthropology at Northwestern University with the dissertation titled "Patterns of Kinship Structure in West Africa."
When he was initially unable to obtain employment as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department in the late 1940s, Smythe taught sociology at Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee), and worked as a researcher for the NAACP. From 1951 until 1953 he was a visiting professor at Yamaguchi National University in Japan. In 1953 Smythe was hired as a sociology professor at Brooklyn College in New York City, New York. Smythe and his wife assisted James H. Robinson in launching Operation Crossroads Africa in 1958, a forerunner of and inspiration for the U.S. Peace Corps.
Still longing for a diplomatic assignment, and encouraged by the more liberal presidency of John F. Kennedy, Smythe sought every opportunity to work abroad. He traveled with American delegations to international conferences, served on numerous committees and was a consultant to various agencies affiliated with the United Nations. He also added to his résumé lectures at the U.S. Foreign