Robert Sutherland (c1830-1878) was the first student and graduate of colour at Queen's and one of the university's most important early benefactors.
He was born in Jamaica to unknown parents, though there is some evidence his father was Scottish. He came to Queen's in 1849, just eight years after the university was founded. He is the first known university student and graduate of colour in Canada.
Sutherland led an extraordinarily successful academic career at Queen's, winning 14 academic prizes, including one for general merit in Latin that was awarded after a vote by fellow students.
He was an excellent debater and served as treasurer of the Dialectic Society, which has become today's Alma Mater Society.
Sutherland graduated in 1852 with honours in classics and mathematics and went on to study law through apprenticeship and examination. He qualified in 1855 and was British North America's first known black lawyer.
He started his legal career in Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener) and then settled in Walkerton, south of Owen Sound, where he practised law for more than 20 years, served briefly as the town's reeve, and had connections to the Underground Railroad and the Black Diaspora.
He died, unmarried, in 1878 after contracting pneumonia.
He had drawn up his will just three weeks before his death and left his entire $12,000 estate to Queen's. It is unclear why he did so, but friends recalled that he often said Queen's was one place where "he had always been treated as a gentleman."
His donation was the largest that any one person had yet given to the university and came at a time when Queen's was battling its way out of poverty. The university had lost most of its endowment in a bank collapse a few years earlier.
Sutherland's gift was used to launch a fundraising campaign that helped stop Queen's from being annexed by the University of Toronto. In appreciation, Principal George Monro Grant ordered that a large granite tombstone be placed on his grave in Toronto's Mt Pleasant Cemetery - where it still stands - to mark his connection with Queen's.
In February 2009, Queen's Board of Trustees unanimously approved a student-initiated motion to name the Policy Studies Building at 138 University Avenue after alumnus Robert Sutherland.
An unveiling ceremony was held on October 3, 2009. Learn more about the event.
"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. Dedicating the Policy Studies Building is ideal because it marks a permanent recognition of Queen's diverse roots and the multiple individuals and communities that have shaped, and that continue to shape, the University and Canada." – student Rector Leora Jackson
“Queen's is sending the right message to this campus and our alumni, by not only honouring Robert Sutherland, but educating the community at large about his great successes and contributions to Queen's and Ontario. It is important to put his donation in perspective; it is the reason that any of us are able to study and work at Queen's University today." – Sacha Atherly, president of the African-Caribbean Students Association
“Robert Sutherland has inspired generations of students at Queen's through both his accomplishments and his generosity. The naming of Robert Sutherland Hall and the plaque acknowledging his lifetime accomplishments and dedication to his alma mater are a fitting tribute to the man who left his entire estate to the University at a time of great need.” – Alma Mater Society President Michael Ceci.
In 1973, the City of Kingston dedicated a plaque in Grant Hall to his memory.
In the fall of 1996, the AMS established a committee called the Robert Sutherland Task Force to "seek a space on campus which would be appropriate to recognize the contributions of Robert Sutherland, the university's first major benefactor and first Black graduate." This group made recommendations that led to several more memorials.
In 1997, the Robert Sutherland Memorial Room was established on the second floor of the John Deustch University Centre.
It was named "in memory of Robert Sutherland, in recognition of his generous support of Queen's through a large estate gift, the first major bequest received by the University." (John Deustch University Council recommendation to the Board of Trustees)
The room, which houses a dedication plaque and the Sutherland Prize award board, continues to be used for meetings, lectures, performances and receptions. It was renovated and rededicated by the university in November 2006.
The Robert Sutherland Visitorship brings to campus a noted speaker with expertise in the areas of equity, community diversity and race relations. It was established by the John Deutsch University Centre Council in 1997 on the recommendation of the Robert Sutherland Task Force.
Currently funded through the John Deutsch university Centre, the Visitorship Committee has brought a number of distinguished visitors to the campus since 1998.
This prize is presented annually by the Alma Mater Society to a graduating and self-defined student of colour who has shown leadership and initiative at Queen's, most specifically in the area of encouraging and fostering diversity on campus.
This award is presented annually by the Alma Mater Society "to the member of the Debating Union who has distinguished him/herself as an outstanding contributor to the Union, exemplified the principles of fair play and sportsmanship, and has demonstrated superior skill and dedication while representing Queen's University on the national and/or international debating circuit(s)."
Established in April 2008 by Queen's University, in cooperation with Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA) and the Harry Jerome Scholarship program to honour Robert Sutherland (BA 1852), the first person of African heritage to graduate from Queen's University.
Awarded to black students entering the first year of any direct-entry undergraduate degree program at Queen's University on the basis of demonstrated financial need, academic achievement and contribution to the black community or other volunteer activities.
The award is renewable for three years provided a satisfactory academic average has been maintained each year and financial need remains evident.
Established by the Afro-Caribe Community Foundation of Kingston and District, with donations from friends and colleagues of the Foundation.
Awarded to a student entering any undergraduate program at Queen's on the basis of financial need, good academic standing and involvement in and/or contribution to the African or Caribbean communities in Canada.
The Robert Sutherland Fellowships (formerly known as Graduate Dean's Scholarships for Aboriginal and Canadian Visible Minority Students) were established in 1992 to help diversify the campus by attracting applications from visible minorities that are under-represented at Queen's.
Awards are available to incoming Aboriginal students, African Canadian students and other Canadian visible minority students.
The awards will be made through a competition held each year in May-June. Application must be made when a student applies for graduate study at Queen's. Value =$10,000.