Queen's University

Who was Robert Sutherland?

Queen's alumnus, first known university student and graduate of colour in Canada, and British North America's first known black lawyer.

[photo of Dr. Esmerelda Thornhill and Donna Wallen] Dr. Esmerelda Thornhill
from Dalhousie and Donna
Wallen, Artsci’94, Law’97,
were among the guests at
the 1998 dedication of the
Robert Sutherland Room
in the JDUC.
Photo by Bernard Clark

Not much is known about the man, and there are no known photographs of him. The evidence suggests that Sutherland was born in Jamaica sometime in the early 1830s. The birth date on his gravestone is 1830, but an 1871 Ontario census indicates he was born in 1834.

 

Sutherland’s parentage is also open to speculation. His Scottish surname suggests that he may have had the name of his parents' "masters" if they were slaves. The other possibility is that his father was Scottish and chose to send him to a college with Scottish roots and academic values. (The School of Medicine would also, in its early years, take in several black sons of white British plantation owners, sent here from the Caribbean.) One of Sutherland’s classmates at Queen's, James MacLennan, BA 1849, LLD 1885 – who became a Supreme Court Judge, served as chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, and served as the executor of Sutherland’s will – stated as much in a 1911 letter that he wrote to Queen's.

What is known for sure about Sutherland is that he must have had help from a patron or family member because tuition was $12 per term when he enrolled in 1849, and room and board would have cost another seven or eight dollars.

Sutherland’s classmates seem to have welcomed him, for they chose him as the winner of the "general merit" award in his second year. He led his class in Greek and mathematics throughout his academic career, winning numerous awards. Sutherland was also an avid debater and served as treasurer of the Dialectic Society in 1851-52.

After graduating from Queen's, Sutherland studied law, was called to the Bar in 1856, and opened a law office in Berlin (the southern Ontario town that was renamed Kitchener during WWI). Sutherland left Berlin after three years, and what he did for the next decade is a mystery. When he reappeared, it was in nearby Walkerton, where he opened another law office. He did well, so well that in 1869 his name was among those on a list of the town's "leading citizens," and by 1872 he was elected as the reeve.

Sutherland may well have been Walkerton’s only black resident, but significant numbers of blacks, fugitive slaves who'd fled the United States in the 1860s via the Underground Railway with Canadians' assistance, settled in Bruce County. It's logical to assume these people would have sought out Sutherland whenever they needed legal advice.

Sadly, Robert Sutherland caught pneumonia in 1878 and died at the age of 48. He never married and had no children. That’s a key reason that he left his entire estate to Queen's. It was in appreciation of that generosity that Principal Grant erected a headstone at Sutherland's grave site.

Learn about recognition of Robert Sutherland on Queen's Campus...

See also "A Timely Honour for an Early Benefactor"
 

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2009-06-05
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