The oldest of seven children in Brownsville, Tennessee, Smitherman started her education in a one-room schoolhouse. Her family moved from the rural south to the urban north as part of the Great African American migration, first living in Chicago for a few years and then moving to Detroit. She studied at and graduated from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and earned a B.A. and M.A. in English and Latin from Wayne State University and a Ph.D in English, with a specialization in sociolinguistics and education, from the University of Michigan.