Moments in Minnesota Black History: The First Black Person to Decline Lutefisk

In honor of Black History Month, The Nordly is looking back on pivotal moments in Minnesota Black History. We start with the incredible life of Ezekiel Jefferson Smalls, the first Black Minnesotan to decline an offering of Lutefisk.

Smalls made his way up north in the 1850’s escaping a southern plantation after it was revealed that he could read and write. He settled in Minnesota after hearing that the white people of the bold North were a bit less scary, something he soon found to be untrue.

“The northern white men are quiet…too quiet”, Smalls wrote in his journal in 1859. “While I know I shan’t be forced back into penniless servitude, here they glare at me silently until I feel I must leave, or smile at me silently until I feel I must leave. It is most unsettling.”

Smalls found work in Minneapolis as a laborer, making friends with a small number of Freedmen and an even much smaller number of Scandinavian immigrants. Even though racism was still alive and well at this time he was invited to a potluck by a work buddy named William Hendrickson’.” And that’s where he makes history. 

A journal entry from July of 1859 tells us that when offered a plate of Lutefisk, Smalls swiftly and consistently declined until Hendrickson walked away. 

“It reeked of something ungodly and jiggled like fresh lard. I did not escape to freedom just to be insulted with this illusion of cod. Fuck that!”

This act of declining lutefisk at a potluck, while rude to the many Scandinavian immigrants at the party, would eventually kick off a tradition of Black Minnesotans declining garbage food from White Minnesotans. 

Doesn’t matter if it’s a work potluck, a cook out up North, or some kind of Nordic Christmas celebration they somehow got invited to. Every time a Black Minnesotan says no thank you to a plate of lutefisk, they pay homage to Ezekiel Jefferson Smalls. The first one to do it.