Robert Sutherland: the first Black grad’s long road to recognition

Student efforts ensure legacy of Queen’s first major donor lives on

Theological Hall (above) began construction in 1879 — a year after Sutherland’s death.
Theological Hall (above) began construction in 1879 — a year after Sutherland’s death.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

The man who saved Queen’s University was likely born a slave to unknown parents.

According to a letter written by his close friend James Maclennan, Robert Sutherland was born to a Scottish father and a Black mother in Jamaica in 1830. He was three years old when the British Empire abolished slavery. 

There’s no record of his baptism — the Church of England didn’t record baptisms of slaves at the time. But he lived in Jamaica until he was 19, when he boarded a ship to leave the Caribbean forever. Soon after, Sutherland became the sixtieth student to enroll at Queen’s.

If Maclennan and historian A. R. Hazelgrove are correct, Sutherland’s father likely covered his son’s expenses and chose Queen’s for its Scottish roots.

When Sutherland arrived, the school was a small and insular Presbyterian college — his graduating arts class was 11 people, including three Masters students.  It wasn’t even a decade old. It occupied two stone houses on the north side of William St., and most of its traffic tended to be horse-drawn.  

A young arts student and future Supreme Court Justice named James Maclennan befriended the solitary Jamaican student, starting a friendship that would last until they died.

Sutherland studied classics and mathematics, which paid off. As a freshman, he won four academic awards. By the next year, his classmates awarded him a general merit award for the quality of his schoolwork. These were just a few of the many accolades Sutherland would receive from the small college. 

Sutherland was a keen debater in the Dialectic Society, the club that eventually became the AMS. While he was the club’s treasurer, his true skill was debating. Of the 10 debates he was in, he led his team to seven victories. 

Although slavery continued miles to the south, Sutherland often said Queen’s was the one place “he had always been treated as a gentleman.” 

One April day in 1852, Queen’s Principal John Machar, a stern Scottish immigrant and minister, handed Queen’s first Black graduate his diploma. Three years later, Sutherland became British North America’s first Black lawyer. 

He settled in a pioneer village named Walkerton — south of Owen Sound — and opened a barrister’s practice soon after. According to Hazelgrove, Sutherland chose the spot for its proximity to escaped slaves settling in Ontario. He would have been the natural choice for the freedmen looking to register land or prepare a will. 

Sutherland lived alone in the same small house for the rest of his life. He contented himself with his work, writing wills and participating in his community. He was called one of Walkerton’s leading citizens by a local directory.  

He never married or had children. Later, Principal George Grant would write that Sutherland’s life was “solitary and joyless.” 

In 1878, Sutherland traveled to Toronto but was floored by coughing fits as he became ill. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with pneumonia. His condition declined until he passed away on June 2 at 48 years old. 

Sutherland left everything he had to Queen’s due to his enduring respect for his treatment at the school. His donation amounted to over $12,000 — worth over a quarter million dollars today and equal to the Queen’s yearly operating budget at that time.

By the spring of 1878, Queen’s was in dire financial straits. The University of Toronto would likely annex the school if it couldn’t get its books in order. Luckily, Sutherland’s donation, the first one of its kind to Queen’s, ensured its financial independence. 

Sutherland was buried in a Toronto graveyard two days after he died. There was no marker. 

In gratitude, Queen’s donated a large granite tombstone to his grave. “May his devotion to his alma mater not pass into oblivion” his plaque in Grant Hall reads. 

There wouldn’t be any physical recognition on campus for another 95 years, until that plaque was placed in Grant Hall in his commemoration.

 

Robert Sutherland's funeral notice from 1878. (Photo from Queens Encyclopedia)

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In fall 1994, Greg Frankson remembers standing with a megaphone on the steps of Richardson Hall protesting a white supremacist group on campus.

That year, the Heritage Front had begun recruiting on the Queen’s campus. A student involved with the organization was distributing posters and running an organizational call centre out of her residence room in Victoria Hall, according to a 2010 article in The Journal

A progressive campus publication, Surface, published an issue addressing the group, but copies of its next issue mysteriously disappeared the night it was distributed on campus. One of Surface’s co-editors alleged that the disappearance was related to their coverage of the Heritage Front. 

Frankson was already involved with RED, an anti-discrimination group, and had contributed to Surface, both of which drew him to attend the rally. But his contact with anti-discrimination groups also exposed him to Sutherland’s story. 

“They were raising awareness around the history of Queen’s in general,” Frankson said. “And Robert Sutherland was one of the more notable stories at the time.”

In his third year, Frankson was elected as the first Black AMS president in Queen’s history.

His first order of business as president-elect was to send a letter to Dean of Student Affairs, Bob Crawford, and the principal to inform them that he intended to make the commemoration of Robert Sutherland a top priority.

Crawford got back to him soon after.

“[Crawford responded] to let me know we had to be diplomatic, [that this] is not the way things are done around campus,” he said. “I think the letter got the attention of the administration.”

Under Frankson’s tenure, the AMS created the Robert Sutherland Task Force.

The task force’s 1997 report, which passed unanimously, recommended four actions: providing a Robert Sutherland Award for Excellence in Debating to a member of the Queen’s Debating Union, dedicating a room in the JDUC to Sutherland, providing the Robert Sutherland prize to a self-defined graduating student of colour who fostered diversity on campus and creating the Robert Sutherland Visitorship to allow a scholar to speak on diversity on campus. 

Frankson said the AMS also worked with the department of Campus Planning and Development to get a building named after Sutherland. 

“We got a lot pushback from the university on the idea of naming any buildings,” he said. One suggestion was to name the tower in Grant Hall after Sutherland.

“That idea didn’t get very far.” Frankson says the department didn’t prioritize Sutherland because they intended to attract notable donors with opportunities to name buildings after them, “without understanding the irony of that statement.” 

The AMS eventually compromised and Queen’s named a room in the JDUC after Sutherland. But Frankson continued to bring up the issue in University Council, an advisory body made up of Queen’s alumni, in the coming years. 

Efforts to honour Sutherland were renewed almost 10 years later with a push to rename the Policy Studies building Robert Sutherland Hall, with the rationale that Sutherland’s legal career complemented policy studies. Then-Rector Leora Jackson, Undergraduate Student Trustee Michael Ceci, AMS President Talia Radcliffe and SGPS President Jeff Welsh spearheaded the effort.

The Board of Trustees passed the proposal unanimously. 131 years after his death, Robert Sutherland’s legacy was enshrined on campus. 

Frankson says Sutherland’s legacy goes beyond his bequest — it also shows the value of a diverse campus.

“We do ourselves a grave and massive disservice every time we deny the need of equity of access and equity of treatment of all people of the Queen’s community,” he said.

 

Robert Sutherland Hall today. (Photo by Kendra Pierroz)

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