Robert Sutherland

Plot Q, Lot 30
Mount Pleasant Cemetery

Robert Sutherland (c1830-1878) was the first student and graduate of colour at Queen’s University, and one of the university’s most important early benefactors. He was born in Jamaica to unknown parents, though there is some evidence his father was Scottish. He came to Queen’s in 1849, just eight years after the university was founded. He is the first known university student and graduate of colour in Canada. Sutherland led an extraordinarily successful academic career at Queen’s, winning 14 academic prizes, including one for general merit in Latin that was awarded after a vote by fellow students. He was an excellent debater and served as treasurer of the Dialectic Society, which has become today’s Alma Mater Society. Sutherland graduated in 1852 with honours in classics and mathematics and went on to study law through apprenticeship and examination. He qualified in 1855 and was British North America’s first known black lawyer. He started his legal career in Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener) and then settled in Walkerton, south of Owen Sound, where he practised law for more than 20 years, served briefly as the town’s reeve, and had connections to the Underground Railroad and the Black Diaspora. He died, unmarried, in 1878 after contracting pneumonia. He had drawn up his will just three weeks before his death and left his entire $12,000 estate to Queen’s. It is unclear why he did so, but friends recalled that he often said Queen’s was one place where “he had always been treated as a gentleman.” His donation was the largest that any one person had yet given to the university and came at a time when Queen’s was battling its way out of poverty. The university had lost most of its endowment in a bank collapse a few years earlier. Sutherland’s gift was used to launch a fundraising campaign that helped stop Queen’s from being annexed by the University of Toronto. In appreciation, Principal George Monro Grant ordered that a large granite tombstone be placed on his grave in Toronto’s Mt Pleasant Cemetery - where it still stands - to mark his connection with Queen’s.