Of course, Robert Sutherland (c1830-1878) is renowned for his contributions to Queen’s University. Born in Jamaica, Sutherland was the first Black student at Queen’s University and the university’s first Black graduate. He was also British North American’s first Black lawyer. His posthumous donation to Queen’s University famously kept the university afloat. His legacy is outstanding on institutional and national levels. But while retellings of the history of Black involvement at Queen’s University often celebrate Sutherland, we believe that they should also recognize other forms of professional engagement.
The history of Black faculty and staff at Queen’s University can be traced to the late nineteenth century with the appearance of Alfred Pierce (1874-1951). For over 60 years, Alfie Pierce, as he was known to generations of students, “was a legendary figure in Queen’s history for his association with Queen’s sports teams. He was said to personify the spirit of Queen’s, regularly appearing at Queen's football games, cheering on the players and exciting the crowd” (Queen’s Encyclopedia). According to the University's official historian, Duncan McDowall,
Through the first half of the twentieth century...Queen’s had revelled in its association with a local Black man, Alfie Pierce. While Alfie was lavished with affection, there was no question that he was perceived as different and inferior by the white students who surrounded him. Yearbook pictures show him reclining on the floor in front of men’s teams. Most regarded him as a “mascot.” Yet, when he died in 1951, his body lay in state in the gym for students and alumni to pay their respects (McDowall 2016).
What does it mean to be the spirit of Queen’s and not its lifeblood? Historiography around Pierce often fails to reckon with the fact that he was one of, if not the first Black persons employed by Queen’s University, albeit as “a precarious-work contractor at Queen’s, who was unequal to the university’s legitimate staff members” (Thomas). Furthermore, Queen’s University researcher Edward Thomas explains that
Alfie Pierce was never a regular employee of the university (he was, reputedly, on a $10/week ‘allowance’ in the last years of his life, but this was not an arrangement for employees). He had no pension, no observable benefits (apart from a package of fresh underwear delivered on a regular basis) and no equivalency with any other employee of the institution. On subjective interpretation, I’d suggest he was employed at Queen’s in the role of an aged and physically disabled house pet as much as a staff member.
Queen’s University would not welcome its first Black professor until the Civil Rights era. Distinguished Civil Engineering Professor Dr. Barrington DeVere Batchelor (1928-2011) is recognized as the first Black professor at Queen’s University (McDowall 2016). He was born in Lucea, Jamaica. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the University of Edinburgh in 1956 and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of London's Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1963. Batchelor began working at the university in 1966 after establishing his engineering career in the United Kingdom and Jamaica.
Dr. Batchelor taught civil engineering at Queen's University for 27 years before retiring in 1993. In addition to his long academic career, he was an outspoken advocate for racial justice and against police violence on campus, locally, and nationally. And yet, after Batchelor joined the university, Queen’s University’s recruitment of Black faculty members remained minimal if not altogether negligible.
Nevertheless, Black faculty and staff at Queen’s have maintained active research and service profiles for decades. In 2017 the university announced a five-year faculty renewal plan, which, while not ostensibly focussed on Black representation, resulted in an increase in the number of Black faculty and staff on campus. In Fall 2017 Dr. Katherine McKittrick, Dr. Beverley Mullings, and Associate Vice-Principal (Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusion) Stephanie Simpson agreed to create a listserv to connect Black Faculty and Staff at Queen’s University (Mullings). Thus, the Queen’s Black Faculty and Staff Caucus and its listserv were born.
McDowall, Duncan. Queen’s University. Volume III, 1961-2004: Testing Tradition. McGill-Queens University Press, 2016.
Mullings, Beverley. “Early Black Professors at Queen’s.” Message to Kristin Moriah. 17 September 2020. E-mail.
“Pierce, Alfie (1874-1951).” Queen’s Encyclopedia. Queen’s University. www.queensu.ca/encyclopedia/p/pierce-alfie.
“Sutherland, Robert (c. 1830-1878).” Queen’s Encyclopedia. Queen’s University. https://www.queensu.ca/encyclopedia/s/sutherland-robert
Thomas, Edward. “Re: QBFSC Website Statement.” Message to Kristin Moriah. 23 September 2020. E-mail.