Though details of his parents are sketchy, it is believed that his father was Scottish and his mother was of African origin. Historical records indicate that Robert Sutherland was born and bred in Jamaica. He began his education at Queen’s University in 1849 as the first black student and graduate in Canada.
His sterling academic performance was etched wherever he took an interest. He picked up 14 academic prizes including one in Latin. He is an acclaimed debater and was on the Dialectic Society as its treasurer.
He became the first black lawyer after he graduated from Queen’s University in 1852. Sutherland had honors in classics and mathematics after his education at Queen’s and furthered his studies in law through apprenticeship and examination. He passed his law examination in 1855, the first black to chalk such a feat in British North America.
His legal journey started in Berlin, Ontario, present-day Kitchener. Sutherland settled and practiced his trade in Walkerton, south of Owen Sound, for more than two decades. He was actively involved in the activities of the Underground Railroad and the Black Diaspora.
He passed away in 1878 after suffering briefly from pneumonia. When he died, he bequeathed his $12,000 estate to Queen’s University. Oral accounts from his friends indicate that he drew his will just three weeks before his death. They explained that his gesture towards Queen’s University was because he felt like it was the only place he was treated as a gentleman.
His donation came at a time when Queen’s University was in dire financial need and was on the verge of collapse. It is considered the largest financial offering anyone had doled out to the academic institution. The university at the time had lost its savings in a bank collapse and was struggling financially.
The university authorities rode on Sutherland’s donation to launch an SOS call to the public to come to their aid, which stopped it from being taken over by the University of Toronto. The University’s principal, George Monro Grant, directed that a large granite tombstone be mounted on Sutherland’s grave at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where it still stands today in recognition of the lifesaving gesture.
In February 2009, the school’s board of trustees voted unanimously to approve the naming of the Policy Studies Building at 138 University Avenue after Sutherland. Student Rector Leora Jackson noted that the most deserving recognition to give to Sutherland is the naming of an edifice which will permanently immortalize his contributions to the school. She indicated that it is these contributions from diverse individuals that continue to light the flames of Queen’s University and impact the future of students who pass through its doors.
President of the African-Caribbean Students Association Sacha Atherly pointed out that the move by the school will send a strong signal beyond the walls of the university about Sutherland’s contributions and what he stood for. She said but for the gesture of Sutherland, the school’s existence will be in the annals of history.
Alma Mater Society President Michael Ceci said Sutherland’s gesture will continue to inspire a league of students about a man who left his entire estate to give life support to a university. In 1973, the City of Kingston dedicated a plaque in Grant Hall to his memory.