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A timely honour for an early benefactor

A timely honour for an early benefactor

The Board of Trustees' decision to name a campus building in honour of Robert Sutherland, the University's first black graduate, is being applauded as a sign Queen's is serious about moving forward on equity and race issues.
Robert Sutherland, BA 1852, once said he loved Queen's because he "was always treated like a gentleman there." Yet the University’s first black graduate and one of its earliest major benefactors doubtless would be surprised – pleasantly so – that 131 years after his death his alma mater has named a building in his honour.

Principal Tom Williams announced in March that the Board of Trustees had unanimously voted to rename the School of Policy Studies Building as Robert Sutherland Hall. "This particular form of recognition and this particular building are a perfect fit for a distinguished individual who played a significant role in the University’s history," Williams says.

Board of Trustees Chair William Young, Sc'77, agrees. "Robert Sutherland played an important role in the history of the University, Ontario, Canada, and North America," he says. "Queen’s is proud to have welcomed and supported him during his student years."

Robert Sutherland HallThe School of Policy Studies building is now Robert Sutherland Hall.

The building housing the School of Policy Studies, built in 1989, has been renamed Robert Sutherland Hall.

The University's decision to pay such a significant tribute to Sutherland heeds a sentiment that’s inscribed in Latin on the headstone Queen’s Principal George M. Grant erected to mark Sutherland's grave in Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery: "May his devotion towards his alma mater not pass into oblivion."

Alumni, faculty, students, and journalists who had been urging the administration to name a building in Sutherland’s honour are applauding, none louder than Ottawa grad Greg Frankson, Artsci/Ed’98. For more than a decade now, Frankson has been one of the most persistent and vocal boosters of the idea of naming a building after Sutherland.

“I think we’ve reached an important point in the evolution of the University and how it deals with equity and diversity issues,” he says.

Both of those concerns have been at the top of Frankson’s personal agenda ever since his student days in the mid-1990s, when he was active in the Alma Mater Society (AMS) and served as its first black president (1996-1997). This and the fact that he and Sutherland share other bonds prompted Frankson to make it his personal mission to see to it that Sutherland’s legacy and his contributions to the University weren’t forgotten.

Greg FranksonFormer AMS
Greg Frankson

Like Sutherland – who was the first black lawyer in Upper Canada and the first black man known to have earned a university degree in North America – Frankson has been a trailblazer in his own right. “I certainly feel a kinship with Sutherland because of that and because both of us had our roots in Jamaica,” he says. “Robert Sutherland was born there, as were my parents.”

Although he wasn't the first to raise the issue, Frankson worked during his student days to heighten awareness of Sutherland’s role in the history of the University. At Frankson’s urging, in January 1997 the AMS assembly established a task force to find an appropriate space that could be dedicated to Sutherland. The following year a room on the second floor of the John Deutsch University Centre (JDUC) was named the Robert Sutherland Memorial Room and a commemorative plaque was erected there. At the same time, a visiting scholar program and several student awards also were launched. (For more details, please visit the Robert Sutherland page on the University's web site.

It's worth noting that the JDUC plaque was actually the second one on campus to honour this same man. In 1975, then-Kingston Mayor George Speal, BCom'54, on behalf of the city, presented Principal Ron Watts, LLD'84, and the University with a plaque telling Sutherland’s story. Jamaica’s High Commissioner to Canada participated in the unveiling in the foyer of Grant Hall, and a troupe of Jamaican dancers – some of them Queen’s students – took part in the festivities. Grant Hall was chosen as the home for that plaque because of the bond between its namesake principal and Robert Sutherland.

However, to Greg Frankson these earlier honours still seemed inadequate. Even after he graduated he waged a vocal, and at times solitary, campaign urging Queen’s to do “the right thing” by Sutherland. “[Sutherland’s] contribution helped save the University from merging with the University of Toronto. Does he not deserve to have a building named after him?” asked Frankson.

He noted that in 1878, the year Sutherland died, Queen’s was in dire financial straits after losing most of its endowment in a bank collapse. Sutherland, who'd established a successful legal practice in the southwestern Ontario town of Walkerton, knew this and willed his entire estate, his life savings plus some property, ­totaling almost $12,000 – an enormous sum at the time, to his alma mater. A grateful Principal George M. Grant, who was Sutherland’s mentor and friend, described the bequest as “the greatest thing done for Queen’s” in the young College’s 36 years.

As Frankson correctly pointed out, without Sutherland’s generosity, there’s a good chance Queen’s as we know it wouldn’t have survived. Others agree.

In December, after discussing a student-initiated proposal to name a building for Robert Sutherland, the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to acknowledge “the importance of the support and contribution by Robert Sutherland to Queen’s University.” They then asked Principal Williams to bring forward a recommendation of how best to do so.

Rector Leora Jackson, Artsci’09, an ex-officio Board member, noted, “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.”

Williams’ decision-making process was complicated by the fact that only two or three of the University’s buildings were unnamed. The practice at Queen’s – as at most other public institutions – more often than not nowadays is to name them after donors who ante up much-needed dollars to cover the cost of constructing or renovating a building or of furnishing and equipping one. The guidelines for doing so are spelled out in a “Naming Policy” that’s posted on the Board of Trustees’ web site.

The fact Queen’s was able to designate a building on campus – especially one in which scholars are engaged in a field of study with which Robert Sutherland would have had an affinity – was serendipitous.

"The decision to name the School of Public Policy building after Sutherland is a nice symbolic gesture. Principal Williams deserves a lot of credit for pushing ahead on this," says Greg Frankson. "I hope Queen’s will now follow up by taking more concrete steps to improve the equity and diversity situations on campus."

How are campus buildings named?

According to the “Naming Policy” that is posted on the Board of Trustees’ home page on the University’s website, “The naming of university activities or property is a well-established custom at Queen’s University. From named Chairs and awards to named buildings and gardens, Queen’s University welcomes the opportunity to honour those who have rendered outstanding service to the University, the Province of Ontario, to Canada, or internationally. It also welcomes the opportunity to honour individuals whose generous philanthropic benefactions make possible the construction or restoration of buildings, the establishment of endowed chairs, and the development of programs.”

See also Who Was Robert Sutherland?

[Queen's Alumni Review 2009-2 cover]