Though information about his parents is limited, it is believed that his father was Scottish and his mother was of African descent. According to historical records, Robert Sutherland was born and raised in Jamaica. In 1849, he enrolled at Queen’s University as Canada’s first black student and graduate.
His outstanding academic performance was evident in every subject in which he was interested. He won 14 academic awards, including one in Latin. He is a well-known debater and former treasurer of the Dialectic Society.
After graduating from Queen’s University in 1852, he became the first black lawyer. Sutherland graduated from Queen’s with honors in classics and mathematics and went on to study law through apprenticeship and examination. In 1855, he became the first black person in British North America to pass the law examination.
His legal career began in Berlin, Ontario, which is now Kitchener. Sutherland lived and worked in Walkerton, south of Owen Sound, for more than two decades. He was an active participant in the Underground Railroad and the Black Diaspora.
He died in 1878 after a brief bout with pneumonia. When he died, he left Queen’s University his $12,000 estate. According to oral accounts from his friends, he drew his will just three weeks before his death. They explained that he made the gesture toward Queen’s because he felt it was the only place where he was treated as a gentleman.
His gift came at a time when Queen’s University was in desperate financial need and on the verge of bankruptcy. It is thought to be the largest financial contribution ever made to an academic institution. At the time, the university had lost its savings in a bank failure and was in financial trouble.
The university authorities used Sutherland’s donation to issue an SOS call to the public for help, preventing it from being taken over by the University of Toronto. George Monro Grant, the University’s principal, directed that a large granite tombstone be installed on Sutherland’s grave at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where it still stands today in recognition of the lifesaving gesture.
The school’s board of trustees unanimously approved the naming of the Policy Studies Building at 138 University Avenue after Sutherland in February 2009. Student Rector Leora Jackson stated that the most deserving honor for Sutherland is the naming of an edifice that will forever commemorate his contributions to the school. She stated that it is the diverse contributions of individuals that keep the flames of Queen’s University burning and have an impact on the future of students who pass through its doors.
Sacha Atherly, President of the African-Caribbean Students Association, stated that the school’s decision will send a strong signal beyond the university’s walls about Sutherland’s contributions and what he stood for. She stated that if it weren’t for Sutherland’s gesture, the school would be lost to history.
Sutherland’s gesture, according to Alma Mater Society President Michael Ceci, will continue to inspire a league of students about a man who left his entire estate to provide life support to a university. The City of Kingston dedicated a plaque in Grant Hall to his memory in 1973.