Sutherland, Robert (c. 1830-1878)

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

Who was Robert Sutherland?

Robert Sutherland (c1830-1878) was the first student and graduate of colour at Queen's and one of the university's most important early benefactors.

He was born in Jamaica around 1830, though the exact date is unknown, to unknown parents, though there is some evidence his father was Scottish. He came to Queen's in 1849, just eight years after the university was founded. He is the first known university student and graduate of colour in Canada.

Sutherland led an extraordinarily successful academic career at Queen's, winning 14 academic prizes, including one for general merit in Latin that was awarded after a vote by fellow students.

He was an excellent debater and served as treasurer of the Dialectic Society, which has become today's Alma Mater Society.

Sutherland graduated in 1852 with honours in classics 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 British North America's first known black lawyer. 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

He started his legal career in Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener) and then settled in Walkerton, south of Owen Sound, where he practised law for more than 20 years, served briefly as the town's reeve, and had connections to the Underground Railroad and the Black Diaspora.

As far as it has been possible to ascertain, Sutherland never married nor had any children. When he died in 1878 or pneumonia, he left his sizable estate of $12,700 entirely to Queen’s. He had drawn up his will just three weeks before his death. It is unclear why he did so, but friends recalled that he often said Queen's was one place where "he had always been treated as a gentleman."

It was the first substantial bequest received by the university – the largest that any one person had yet given to 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.”

Sutherland's gift was used to launch a fundraising campaign that helped stop Queen's from being annexed by the University of Toronto. In appreciation, Principal George Monro Grant ordered that a large granite tombstone be placed on his grave in Toronto's Mt Pleasant Cemetery - where it still stands - to mark his connection with Queen's.

For more than a century, Mr. Sutherland’s legacy was not broadly 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.

Recognition on Queen's Campus for Robert Sutherland

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.

unveiling of the Sutherland plaque - greg Frankson and Bill Leggett]
AMS President Frankson and Principal Bill Leggett unveiling the Sutherland plaque

Robert Sutherland Hall

In February 2009, Queen's Board of Trustees unanimously approved a student-initiated motion to name the Policy Studies Building at 138 University Avenue after alumnus Robert Sutherland. An unveiling ceremony was held on October 3, 2009.

"We were looking for something that would appropriately reflect the life and achievements of Robert Sutherland, as well as the impact his gift had on the University. Dedicating the Policy Studies Building is ideal because it marks a permanent recognition of Queen's diverse roots and the multiple individuals and communities that have shaped, and that continue to shape, the University and Canada." - student Rector Leora Jackson

"Queen's is sending the right message to this campus and our alumni, by not only honouring Robert Sutherland, but educating the community at large about his great successes and contributions to Queen's and Ontario. It is important to put his donation in perspective; it is the reason that any of us are able to study and work at Queen's University today." - Sacha Atherly, president of the African-Caribbean Students Association

"Robert Sutherland has inspired generations of students at Queen's through both his accomplishments and his generosity. The naming of Robert Sutherland Hall and the plaque acknowledging his lifetime accomplishments and dedication to his alma mater are a fitting tribute to the man who left his entire estate to the University at a time of great need." - Alma Mater Society President Michael Ceci.

Robert Sutherland Plaque in Grant Hall

In 1973, the City of Kingston dedicated a plaque in Grant Hall to his memory.

Robert Sutherland Memorial Room

In the fall of 1996, the AMS established a committee called the Robert Sutherland Task Force to "seek a space on campus which would be appropriate to recognize the contributions of Robert Sutherland, the university's first major benefactor and first Black graduate." This group made recommendations that led to several more memorials.

In 1997, the Robert Sutherland Memorial Room was established on the second floor of the John Deustch University Centre.

It was named "in memory of Robert Sutherland, in recognition of his generous support of Queen's through a large estate gift, the first major bequest received by the University." (John Deustch University Council recommendation to the Board of Trustees)

The room, which houses a dedication plaque and the Sutherland Prize award board, continues to be used for meetings, lectures, performances and receptions. It was renovated and rededicated by the university in November 2006.

Robert Sutherland Visitorship

The Robert Sutherland Visitorship brings to campus a noted speaker with expertise in the areas of equity, community diversity and race relations. It was established by the John Deutsch University Centre Council in 1997 on the recommendation of the Robert Sutherland Task Force.

Currently managed by Provost’s Advisory Committee for the Promotion of the Arts, the visitorship committee has brought a number of distinguished visitors to the campus since 1998.

Nominations and Deadlines

  • Nominations are accepted at any time and considered by the Committee on an annual basis. Learn more:
Sutherland Visitorship

Past visitors have included:

  • 1998. Dr. Esmeralda Thornhill, Faculty of Law, Dalhousie University
    Inaugural Public Lecture: "Lessons for Now: Life and Times of Robert Sutherland"
  • 2000. Enid Lee, international consultant - public speaker, facilitator, writer and community builder - on language, culture and race as they relate to equity in education and organization development
    Public Lecture: "Fanning the Flames for Equity in Hard Times: A Conversation for Black History Month"
  • 2001. Ken Wiwa, journalist and author, In the Shadow of a Saint
    Public Lecture: "In the Shadow of a Saint: Memory, Community and the Quest for Social Justice"
  • 2002. Dr. Patricia McFadden, sociologist, activist, writer and publisher and recipient of the Hellman/Hammet Human Rights Prize in 1999.
    Public Lecture: "Becoming Post Colonial: African Women Change the Meaning of Citizenship"
  • 2003. Faith Nolan, singer, songwriter and activist.
    Public Lecture: "Talking and Singing 'bout the Jailhouse Blues: Challenging the Growth of the Prison Industrial Complex"
  • 2004. William Commanda, Elder, Romola Trebilcock, co-ordinator, Circle of All Nations.
    Public Lecture: "A Circle of All Nations - A Culture of Peace"
  • 2005. Dr. George Elliott Clarke, poet, playwright, screenwriter, author.
    Public Lecture: "Towards a Pedagogy of African-Canadian Literature"
  • 2006. Dr. Afua Cooper, dub poet, sociologist, and historian.
    Dr. Cooper holds a Ph.D. in African-Canadian history with specialties in slavery and abolition. Her book,The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal, was short-listed for the 2006 Governor General's Literary Awards (nonfiction).
    Public Lecture: "Acts of Rebellions: Black Women and Men Engage Slavery in Upper Canada"
  • 2008. Lawrence Hill, bestselling author of seven books, including two published in Canada and internationally in 2007:The Book of Negroes (a novel) and The Deserter's Tale: the Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq
  • 2009. Sunera Thobani, professor at UBC's Centre for Women's and Gender Studies. Public Lecture: "Slumdogs and Superstars: Negotiating the 'Culture of Terror'"
  • Winter 2011. Dr. Robert D. Bullard is the Edmund Asa Ware Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. Public Lecture: "Race, Place and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina"
  • 2011. David Austin teaches in the humanities department at John Abbott College in Montreal. He also co-founded the Alfie Roberts Institute, an independent library and archives of Black history in Montreal. Public Lecture: "Dread, Beat, and Freedom: Frantz Fanon, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Politics of Youth Violence"
  • 2013. Dr. Jasbir Puar, author, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Edward Said Chair of American Studies, American University of Beirut, Lebanon. Associate Professor, Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers University, US. Public Lecture: "Homonationalism, Sex, and Disability: Pinkwashing and Biopolitics in the Middle East"
  • 2016. Dr. Bonita Lawrence and Faith Nolan. Women's Prison Solidarity: Songs and Teachings.
  • 2016 Dr. Deborah Wong. Listening to the Inaudible

The Robert Sutherland Prize

This prize is presented annually by the Alma Mater Society to a graduating and self-defined student of colour who has shown leadership and initiative at Queen's, most specifically in the area of encouraging and fostering diversity on campus.

Past recipients include:

  • 1997-98: Donna Wallen
  • 1998-99: Cherilyn Scobie
  • 1999-00: Ray Dziet
  • 2001-02: Amma Bonsu
  • 2002-03: Jonathan Daly
  • 2003-04: Mark Adamaley
  • 2005-06: Jacqueline Kiggundu
  • 2006-07: Tka Pinnock
  • 2007-08: Eden Abraham, Darcel Bullen

Robert Sutherland Award for Excellence in Debating

This award is presented annually by the Alma Mater Society "to the member of the Debating Union who has distinguished him/herself as an outstanding contributor to the Union, exemplified the principles of fair play and sportsmanship, and has demonstrated superior skill and dedication while representing Queen's University on the national and/or international debating circuit(s)."

Robert Sutherland - Harry Jerome Entrance Award

Established in April 2008 by Queen's University, in cooperation with Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA) and the Harry Jerome Scholarship program to honour Robert Sutherland (BA 1852), the first person of African heritage to graduate from Queen's University.

Awarded to black students entering the first year of any direct-entry undergraduate degree program at Queen's University on the basis of demonstrated financial need, academic achievement and contribution to the black community or other volunteer activities.

The award is renewable for three years provided a satisfactory academic average has been maintained each year and financial need remains evident.

Learn more about awards and bursaries...

Robert Sutherland Memorial Entrance Bursary

Established by the Afro-Caribe Community Foundation of Kingston and District, with donations from friends and colleagues of the Foundation.

Awarded to a student entering any undergraduate program at Queen's on the basis of financial need, good academic standing and involvement in and/or contribution to the African or Caribbean communities in Canada.

Learn more about awards and bursaries...

The Robert Sutherland Fellowships

The Robert Sutherland Fellowships (formerly known as Graduate Dean's Scholarships for Aboriginal and Canadian Visible Minority Students) were established in 1992 to help diversify the campus by attracting applications from visible minorities that are under-represented at Queen's.

Awards are available to incoming Indigenous students, African Canadian students and other Canadian visible minority students.

The awards will be made through a competition held each year in May-June. Application must be made when a student applies for graduate study at Queen's. Value =$10,000.