Recognition for Robert Sutherland
Principal Grant described his generosity as “the greatest thing done for Queen’s."
In 1996, Greg Frankson was elected President of the AMS, the first black student to occupy the role. Mr. Frankson was determined to resurrect the memory of Queen’s first black graduate, Jamaica-born Robert Sutherland, an Arts graduate of 1854.
Mr. Sutherland was born around 1830, though the exact date is unknown. Registering at Queen’s in 1849, Mr. Sutherland quickly made his mark. He was active in the Dialectic Society (the forerunner to the AMS) and had a remarkable academic career. He won 14 academic prizes that included Greek, Latin and mathematics.
After Queen’s, Mr. Sutherland proceeded to Osgoode Hall to study law. When he was called to the bar in 1855, he became the first black lawyer in Upper Canada. At that time, the black community in the colony was small, mainly comprising black Loyalists and former American slaves. The 1871 Canadian census would report that there were only 21,500 black Canadians in all of the new Confederation. Mr. Sutherland went on to practise law in Berlin, now Kitchener, and Walkerton, where local almanacs recognized him as a leading citizen.
Mr. Sutherland died in 1878, leaving his sizable estate of $12,700 entirely to Queen’s (as far as it has been possible to ascertain, he never married nor had any children). It was the first substantial bequest received by the university, and it came at a crucial time. Queen’s had lost most of its endowment a few years earlier due to a bank collapse and Mr. Sutherland’s gift kept the university from being annexed by the University of Toronto. Principal Grant described his generosity as “the greatest thing done for Queen’s.” In gratitude, Queen’s paid for Mr. Sutherland’s tombstone in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
For more than a century, Mr. Sutherland’s legacy was not recognized. In 1975, the City of Kingston, prompted into action by the Jamaican-Canadian community, erected a plaque to Mr. Sutherland’s memory at Queen’s and the Jamaican High Commissioner attended the unveiling.
It took pressure from Queen’s students, spearheaded by AMS President Frankson, to prompt open recognition of the pioneering alumnus. In 1998, a room in the John Deutsch University Centre was named for Mr. Sutherland and a Sutherland Visitorship was established. In 2009, the Policy Studies building at Queen’s was renamed Robert Sutherland Hall. An entrance award and bursary are both named in honour of Mr. Sutherland.
Pictured above: AMS President Frankson and Principal Bill Leggett