Celebrating the excellence of Robert Sutherland

Black History Month celebrates achievement, determination and representation in light of systemic barriers 

ACSA team following visit from High Commissioner of Jamaica to Canada Janice Miller.
Credit: 
Supplied By Asantewa Nkuah

Every day, students walk by Robert Sutherland Hall on their way to class, but few are aware of the building’s historic legacy.

The African and Caribbean Students’ Association (ACSA) wants to remedy that disconnect. This year, the Kingston-wide theme for Black History Month (BHM) is “Black Excellence: Within the Present and Towards the Future,” and Robert Sutherland is highlighted at the centre of the discussion.

Born in Jamaica, Sutherland was the first university graduate and lawyer of colour in British North America.

He graduated from Queen’s in 1852, and again in 1855 with a law degree. During his time at the institution, he won 14 academic prizes and served as the treasurer of the Dialectic Society, the AMS predecessor. 

Sutherland’s contribution to the university didn’t end there. Upon his death in Toronto in 1878, he left his entire estate to Queen’s because “hehad always been treated as a gentleman [here],” according to the Queen’s Encyclopedia.  

Queen’s was facing financial ruin at the time and used his donation to launch a critical fundraising campaign that stopped the institution’s impending sale to the University of Toronto. While his donation continues to play a key role in Queen’s continued existence, Sutherland’s hidden history and generosity remain largely unknown across campus. 

“It’s the celebration of black achievement, determination, and representation overcoming systemic barriers,” said Asantewa Nkuah, Artsci ’19, ACSA’s Education Officer in an email to The Journal. 

ACSA was established in the 1990s to support individuals of African and Caribbean descent during their transition to Kingston and provide a home throughout their time at Queen’s. They raise awareness about issues facing people of colour on campus, such as institutional barriers and social discrimination based on race and ethnicity. 

For Black History Month, ACSA has hosted a dance workshop, two community discussions, and a presentation from the Jamaican High Commissioner to Canada.

“Our BHM programming emphasizes creativity and personal stories in order to communicate what excellence means for the African diaspora,” Nkuah said.

The Government of Canada first recognized Black History Month in 1995, after Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, introduced a motion that February be designated in honour of the historical contributions of Black Canadians. The motion passed unanimously in the House of Commons.

“When you see young Black people celebrating Black History Month, the discussions that occur and the stories we choose to tell, I think it serves as a reminder that uncovering our history is an ongoing process for a lot of us.” Nkuah said. “It shows that we remain affected by the past because it has mapped out our present reality and will shape how we approach the future.” 

However, Nkuah noticed many students at Queen’s don’t understand the connection between history and the current state of Canadian society. 

“The historical is often met with this, ‘So what? We’re in the present now,’ attitude that’s both dismissive and dangerous. History is especially important for the African diaspora because our cultures and identities have been forged by it. A lot of people remain unaware of this truth, especially in hegemonic spaces like Queen’s,” Nkuah said. 

BHM is particularly important in these spaces because it provides a different perspective on Canadian history, in comparison to the limited scope of the curriculum taught in classrooms.

“Canada has a huge problem with whitewashing its history,” Nkuah said. 

Black students face a number of institutional and social barriers at Queen’s beyond underrepresentation in the curriculum. Nkuah pointed out there are few courses related to Afro-Caribbean culture available and only a small group of Black faculty and staff. Moreover, “basic elements of identity—food items, haircare, and cultural music—are difficult to find in Kingston.

The lack of cultural representation on campus leads to greater academic and personal challenges while studying at Queen’s—no sense of belonging is established. 

“We go through the same hurdles other students do to get here and when we arrive, there’s still this feeling we shouldn’t be here. That speaks to a wider colonial legacy. More needs to be done by Queen’s to show they’re aware of their Black student demographic and are interested in making us feel safe and like we belong,” Nkuah said.

Each year, ACSA co-organizes BHM celebrations on campus with the Queen’s Black Academic Society (QBAS). Collaboration is a vital means of  “maintaining close relationships within the diaspora,” Nkuah said.

Alongside ACSA’s program offers, QBAS is running the #IamRobertSutherland campaign throughout the month. Each week they honour a Black Canadian who’s made a significant contribution to Canadian society through a Facebook post, including Sutherland and Josiah Henson. 

Sutherland’s legacy at the University was commemorated recently when in 2009, Queen’s Board of Trustees approved a student-initiated motion to honour Sutherland’s legacy by naming a building after him—131 years after his contribution to the institution. This acknowledgement was long overdue, and ACSA is focusing their Black History Month efforts on ensuring the contributions and histories of Black Canadians are fully recognized.

“By personally identifying with Robert Sutherland, the [original] student of colour,” Nkuah said. “I think we, as Black university students, are encouraged to take pride in our positionality and remember that long before [us] there were people who struggled the same way we do.”

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