Trustees of Queen’s University Decline to Honor the Black Man Who, in 1878, Saved the Institution From Insolvency

The board of trustees at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has denied a motion made by a student group to name a building on campus after Robert Sutherland.

Robert Sutherland was the first black graduate of the university, and a $13,000 contribution he made to the university in 1878 kept the university from closing or merging with another educational institution due to financial difficulties.

Sutherland was born in Jamaica in 1830. His father was Scottish and his mother was a black Jamaican. Not much is known about how Sutherland made his way to Queen’s University, but it is thought that he may have been educated in Scotland before coming to Canada. He graduated from Queen’s University in 1852 with awards in mathematics and Latin. He is believed to be the first black person to receive a degree from a university in Northern America. Earlier black graduates in the United States were all from liberal arts colleges.

Sutherland went on to study law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. He later established a successful law practice in Ontario. He died in 1878, leaving his entire estate to Queen’s University.

Queen’s University has not totally ignored Sutherland’s contribution. A room in the student center is named in his honor. A scholarship fund and a lecture series at the university also bear his name.

The board’s decision not to name a building in his honor was held behind closed doors so there is no public record on why the decision was made.