Robert Sutherland: The First Black Student at Queen’s College

Street Address : 207 William Street
Period : 1850-1900

George Browne, the famed architect who designed Kingston’s City Hall, built this large stone building as a double house (renting half and living in the other half) in 1841. Between the founding of Queen’s College (now University) in 1841 and 1853-54 (when it moved to its current campus), Queen’s lacked a permanent home and moved several times in search of appropriate accommodations. As the school grew, it needed a location that would fulfill its expanding needs. In 1844, the college rented and built in this part of the block, which once had another attached stone house built in 1844 (and demolished c1898) by William Simpson between Browne’s house and the corner of Barrie Street. That house (the site is now occupied by 213-217 William Street) was rented by the college from 1847 to 1854 from James Morton who had purchased it in 1846. Browne’s house was rented by Queen’s only until May 1848. In December 1848, a new stone school building, designed by William Coverdale, was opened by the college on leased vacant land to the immediate east of Browne’s house. Purchased by the college in 1854 and sold in 1862, it was a Preparatory School to prepare students for admission to college. Parts of the school may have been incorporated into 203-205 William Street as we see it today.

When Robert Sutherland arrived at the College in 1849, he likely attended classes, as well as boarded, in the stone corner building (now 213-217 William) as one of fourteen members of the Class of 1852. Unfortunately, a fire damaged the building in February 1849 but the owner, James Morton, promptly rebuilt in the spring. Typical of Queen’s students of the day, Sutherland was of Presbyterian faith (at this time Queen’s was a Presbyterian college) and had a distinctly Scottish name. However, he was also unique as Queen’s only Jamaican student. In fact, Sutherland was Queen’s first student of color, and perhaps the first black student to study at any Canadian university.

There is 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. If Sutherland had been born a slave, his status would have been tied to that of his parents and dependent on the will of their owner to grant them freedom. There is also the possibility that his father was a white plantation owner, evidenced by a letter written in 1911 by James Maclennan, a friend and classmate of Sutherland from Queen’s and also the executor of his will. 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, it might explain how he could afford to send his son to Queen’s.

Sutherland attended Queen’s for three years, at that time the norm for completing a Bachelor of Arts degree. He had an exemplary 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. Sutherland is recorded as stating that he had “always been treated like a gentleman” during his time at Queen’s. In 1852 he finished with double honours in Mathematics and Classics, continuing on to Toronto to study Law at Osgoode Hall. After being called to the bar in 1855, Sutherland moved to Walkerton, Ontario, an area that had been settled by numerous persons of Afro-American descent. Sutherland opened a legal practice and remained in Walkerton until his death at the age of forty-eight on 2 June 1878. He was the first black lawyer in Canada.

He willed his entire estate, valued at approximately $12,000, to Queen’s University, an extremely large gift for the day. This donation was the “first considerable bequest to the university” and remarkable as the largest donation ever made to the university by a single benefactor. As a tribute to Sutherland’s memory and a gesture of thanks the university placed a large granite tombstone on Sutherland’s grave, commemorating his connection to Queen’s. In February 2009, it was announced that the Policy Studies Building would be named after him.

At the corner of William and Barrie Streets, turn left or south on Barrie to Stuart Street. Proceed on Stuart to University Avenue, turn left and stop near Grant Hall.

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