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Black History Month: How Robert Sutherland saved Queen’s University

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Black History Month: How Robert Sutherland saved Queen’s University
WATCH: The story of Robert Sutherland, the first Black lawyer in Upper Canada and the first Black man known to have earned a university degree in North America – Feb 7, 2022

Robert Sutherland began his career in 1849 at 203 William St. in Kingston, Ont., the former site of Queen’s University.

Sutherland was the first Black student at Queen’s and went on to become Canada’s first Black lawyer.

What many might not know is how Sutherland saved the university from dire financial straits in its early years.

“Queen’s simply would not exist without Robert Sutherland, and I think that’s an important statement to make — especially now as we celebrate African heritage during Black History month,” says Queen’s alumnus Greg Frankson.

A successful lawyer, Sutherland left his entire $12,000 estate to Queen’s when he passed, at a particularly crucial time for the school.

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The bequest was very timely, Frankson says.

“The university had just lost its endowment in a bank failure and was about to be taken over by the University of Toronto,” Frankson says. “That bequest helped to save Queen’s as an independent institution.”

According to Frankson, $12,000 in 1878 was roughly equivalent to the entire annual budget of Queen’s at the time.

While there are no known photos of Sutherland, we know that he graduated from Queen’s College in 1852 with honours in Classics and Mathematics.

He was also awarded 14 academic prizes, including one voted on by his peers.

“It came as kind of a surprise to everyone that this man had been practising law a full two decades before Delos Davis, who was widely recognized at the time as the first Black lawyer,”  Frankson says.

“It really did help to shift some of the conversation around Black contributions in Canada, and to have us think a little bit more deeply about some of the early contributions of, not just Black folks but, other people of colour as well to Queen’s University in particular and to Kingston more generally.”

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Frankson has worked to honour Sutherland’s memory since his time at Queen’s, and is responsible for dedications by the school in Sutherland’s name.

Greg Frankson, during his time as AMS president in the mid-1990s, unveils a plaque honouring Robert Sutherland. Queen's University

Sutherland said he was always treated like a gentleman at Queen’s, Frankson says.  “We wanted to make sure that the gentleman was being properly recognized for his central role in the maintenance of Queen’s as an independent, strong, high-reputation institution.”

Now an author of AfriCANthology, Frankson became Queen’s first Black president of the Alma Mater Society (AMS) in 1996, and says he feels a kinship with Sutherland.

Both have roots in Jamaica and would go on to become trailblazers.

“Becoming president at Queen’s was one of the great honours of my life, and being able to use that position to be able to push internally for Queen’s to commemorate Robert Sutherland is one of the proudest achievements of my life.”

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Sutherland’s indelible mark on the university has been honoured with awards, a room, and a building in his name, Frankson says.

“Black Canadians are not creating Black history, Black Canadians are creating Canadian history.”

Frankson says a lot of work must continue to be done within the Kingston and Queen’s communities to ensure Black students and community members feel welcome.

“Black folks have been here for a long time. They’re not going anywhere, they’re growing and they will continue to make contributions to the city and to the university,” he says.

“It’s on all of us now to make sure that those relationships are strong and constructive going forward.”

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