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How Queen's Was Saved by its First Black Student

By: Amy Abraham


Located on the west side of Queen’s main campus, across from the Smith School of Business is a building that is unlikely to be recognized by many history students. Home to the School of Policy Studies, the School of Urban and Regional Planning, the Industrial Relations Centre, the Centre for International and Defence Policy, and the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations is Sutherland Hall. The figure for whom the building is named after is someone each student should know because he is the reason we attend Queen's University today. Robert Sutherland (1830 – 1878) was the first student of colour to attend Queen's, and possibly the first at any Canadian university. Sutherland, originally from Jamaica, arrived at Queen’s in 1849, as one of fourteen members of the Class of 1852. At the end of his life, Sutherland left his entire estate to Queen’s, saving the University from being annexed by the University of Toronto.

There is very little information regarding Sutherland’s origins. Slavery was still legal in Jamaica when he was born in the early 1830s and it is possible that his parents were slaves on a plantation. There is also the possibility that his father was a white plantation owner. This is reinforced by a letter written in 1911 by James Maclennan, a friend and classmate of Sutherland from Queen’s. Maclennan states that Sutherland’s father was “a scotchman” while Sutherland “was as black as he could be”. This information regarding his father remains unproven but, if he was a free white person, it might explain how he could afford to send his son to Queen’s.

Sutherland attended Queen’s for three years, earning double honours in Mathematics and Classics. He had an exceptional record, winning fourteen academic prizes during his time in Kingston, excelling in both Greek and mathematics. He is also remembered for his public speaking skills as a member of the Dialectic Society, the Queen’s debating club. After his time at Queen’s, Sutherland moved to Toronto to study Law at Osgoode Hall. After being called to the bar in 1855 Sutherland became the first known black member of the Law Society of Upper Canada and went on to have a successful practice in the city of Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener). In the 1800s, Berlin was known to have attracted many African-Americans who had escaped slavery by coming to Canada through the underground railroad. Sutherland is said to have devoted a part of his practice to assisting many of these former slaves to gain titles to land.

Never having been married, Sutherland willed his entire estate, valued at approximately $12,000, to Queen’s University (today this would be approximately over $260,000 CAD). This donation was the “first considerable bequest to the university” and is seen as remarkable because it is the largest donation ever made to the university by a single benefactor. Sutherland's donation enabled Queen's to escape being annexed by the University of Toronto, which at the time was exerting pressure to take over the institution. Queen's used Sutherland's gift for a fundraising initiative that ultimately saved the university from financial ruin and eventual takeover. Essentially, we have Robert Sutherland to thank for the Queen’s University that we attend today. His legacy is crucial to Queen’s history and yet largely remains undiscussed.

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