Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo. in 1902, the son of James Nathaniel Hughes, a stenographer for a mining company, and Carrie Mercer Langston. After his father abandoned the family for a business career in Mexico, Hughes lived in various places but mainly in Lawrence, Kans. , in the home of his grandmother Mary Langston, whose first husband had been a member of John Brown's "army" and died at Harpers Ferry. She instilled in her grandson a reverence for social and racial justice. But neither she nor his mother, who was frequently absent from Lawrence in pursuit of work, satisfied the boy's craving for affection, and he grew up a lonely child who sought relief mainly in books.
Between 1915 and 1916 he lived in Lincoln, Ill. , with his mother, who had remarried after divorcing his father.