Willis Smith was born in Norfolk, Virginia on 19 December 1887, and his family moved to North Carolina before he was two. He graduated from Duke University Law School in 1912 and became a practicing attorney, only to leave his job to join the US Army during World War I. From 1928 to 1932, he served in the North Carolina House of Representatives as a conservative Southern Democrat, and he served as Speaker of the State House in 1931. From 1947 to 1953, he was Chairman of the Duke University Board of Trustees, and he also briefly served as President of the American Bar Association. In 1950, he defeated the liberal Democratic senator Frank P. Graham to take his US Senate seat, with Jesse Helms assisting the segregationist Smith in his campaign against the antiracist Graham. Smith's career was short and unremarkable, and he died in Bethesda, Maryland on 26 June 1953 at the age of 65.