Lemonade seller won a Rosa Parks Scholarship at 9 — and now he's grown

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — Joshua Smith opened a lemonade stand when he was 9 years old to help the city climb out of debt, and he did so well with it that he made worldwide news and won a scholarship named for Rosa Parks.

Now he's ready to collect the check and head off to college — at a point where the Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation is looking for a bit of help itself.

"At 9, I didn't really understand the magnitude," Joshua said: not of the temporary fame, not of a $2,000 grant, and not of the association with a civil rights pioneer so beloved that her funeral in 2005 was seven hours long.

Rhonda Smith and her son Joshua Smith, 17 sit on the front porch of their Detroit, Michigan home on May 17, 2020.

It was 2012, and he just wanted to get the grass mowed at a couple of parks near his house in Russell Woods in Detroit. The city was $200 million in the hole and a year from declaring bankruptcy, and Joshua's eventual $3,600 contribution to the cause put him on CNN and in papers as far away as Italy.

The Detroit News named him a 2013 Michiganian of the Year in a class that also included a U.S. attorney who prosecuted public corruption and terrorism, the president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and a 102-year-old philanthropist from Plymouth.

"I thank God for all of it," said Joshua, who plans to study for the ministry. "But looking back, I think, 'How did I get through all that?'"

Photo of 9 year old Joshua Smith with friends at his lemonade stand in front of his house in Detroit, Michigan in 2012.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the scholarship foundation is figuring out how to get through the coronavirus pandemic and the ripple effects next year.

To be clear, it doesn't need a lemonade stand. Overall, it's as healthy as Joshua, a driven 17-year-old bound for Calvin University in Grand Rapids. But COVID-19 postponed plans for a 40th anniversary gala, said foundation president Kim Trent, and the board wants to give $2,000 to a full complement of 40 Michigan high school seniors.

So it's tapping the 1,300 previous Rosa Parks recipients, asking for $40 apiece. And if the public wants to help the 2020 class of young scholars, including the kid with that once-famous lemonade concession?


Joshua Smith, at Zussman Park in Detroit, where a playground setting that was put up in his honor, on May 16, 2013.

"We don't really do a lot of fundraising," Trent said. Endowed in 1980 with the $1 million settlement from a federal civil rights case and co-founded by The Detroit News and Detroit Public Schools, the foundation has disbursed $2.5 million for scholarships and increased its bankroll mostly on earnings from its management by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

Investment income, however, "has been a little short the last few years." For 2019, only 35 scholarships were awarded, and this year's tumult in the stock market will impact 2021.

"Knowing we have to brace for that, we'd like to get ahead," she said.

The tally hit $20,243 last week against a goal of $24,000, with few alumni donors more enthusiastic than Trent and Joshua's mother, Rhonda Smith.

They were Cass Tech seniors in 1987, back when two Parks Scholars with an interest in journalism were chosen each year for recurring Detroit News internships plus four-year awards of full tuition and books at Wayne State University.

Acquaintances in high school, they bonded during their internships and were ultimately bridesmaids in one another's weddings.

Each speaks almost reverently of the day they were assigned to collect Parks at her west side home and drive her to the scholarship luncheon at the Renaissance Center.

"I was totally in awe," Smith said. She sat in the back seat of a well-worn News fleet vehicle that Trent recalls as a gray Dodge Aries K-car.

Kim Trent and her friend Rhonda Smith say they treasure this photo of themselves with the late Rosa Parks at a scholarship luncheon. Trent, the former chair of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, is at the far right in the front row. Smith is also in the front row, second from left.

Trent, the driver, remembers pulling to the curb and thinking she and Parks were about to chat and bond all the way downtown. It turned out, she said, that Parks was "a woman of action and few words," but "it was still one of the thrills in my life."

The scholarships are awarded to high school seniors statewide who adhere to Parks' ideals while combining solid academics, community involvement and economic need.

Not surprisingly, Joshua remains the only child to be awarded one in fourth grade.

His father, Flynn, teaches math and geography in Southfield. Rhonda Smith was a community college instructor until she quit to home-school Joshua and his younger brothers, Nathaniel and Justus.

When Joshua approached her with the idea of selling juice and popcorn to help Detroit, she admitted, "I thought it was ridiculous. But as any good parent would do, you don't tell them that."

Instead, she helped him set up a folding table and make a sign. At the suggestion of Trent, now the deputy director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, Smith dialed a few contacts in local newsrooms, and Joshua and his lemonade became the media flavor of the week.

Joshua's story appeared, among other places, in the Washington Post, the New York Daily News and a book from Japan the Smiths can't read. Three University of Michigan basketball players dropped by to sign T-shirts and hats and buy $1 cups of lemonade.

Joshua thanked them on CNN — while guilelessly mentioning that his favorite team was Michigan State.

Meantime, an out-of-state company donated playground equipment, and a squad of suburban lawnmower vigilantes trimmed the grass at the parks.

"Was I impressed? Sure," Joshua said. "But I don't think I understood."

Trent did. Joshua "had a sense of self you don't see in someone so young," she said. "He thought he could change his circumstances in a meaningful way."

He was, in short, "what we're looking for in a Parks Scholar" — and maybe a few Parks donors, too.

Rosa Parks Scholarship

To donate: rosaparksscholarship.org/donate

The Detroit News and Detroit Public Schools founded The Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation in 1980. It has awarded more than $2.5 million in scholarships to more than 1,000 high school students.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn