Queen’s University honours former student and benefactor

By RON FANFAIR

The Robert Sutherland Hall has been officially opened at Queen’s University in Kingston.

A plaque was unveiled at a ceremony earlier this month to honour the academic institution’s first Black student, graduate, lawyer and major benefactor.

The university’s board of trustees earlier this year unanimously approved a student-initiated motion to name the Policy Building Studies building after Sutherland who won 14 academic prizes at Queen’s before graduating in 1852 with honours in Classics and Math.

The Walkerton resident and Upper Canada’s first Black lawyer passed away at age 48 in 1878. He left his entire estate of $12,000 – which was then equal to Queen’s annual operating budget – to the university to help place it on a solid financial footing in the wake of a banking crisis that threatened its existence at the time.

“Robert Sutherland has inspired generations of students at Queen’s through both his accomplishments and his generosity,” said Alma Mater Society president Michael Ceci. “The naming of the 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.”

Queen’s African-Caribbean Students Association president Sacha Atherley said the university is sending the right message by not only honouring Sutherland but educating the community about his myriad successes and achievements.

“It is important to put his donation in perspective,” she said. “It’s the reason that many of us are able to study and work at Queen’s University today.”

Sutherland, who enrolled at Queen’s eight years after the university was established, was an outstanding debater. He also served as treasurer of the Dialectic Society which is now the Alma Mater Society.

He launched his legal career in Kitchener and practiced law for close to two decades in Walkerton, serving briefly as the town’s Reeve. His donation – drawn up in his will three weeks before he succumbed to pneumonia – came at a time when Queen’s had lost most of its endowment in a bank collapse a few years earlier.

Sutherland’s gift was used to start a fundraising campaign that helped prevent Queen’s from being annexed to the University of Toronto. To show its appreciation, then university principal George Munro Grant requested that a large granite tombstone be placed on his grave in Mount Pleasant cemetery to mark his connection to the university.

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