Once Upon a Time: Robert Sutherland – a Bruce County man of many Black firsts saves Queen’s University

Canada’s first Black lawyer, Robert Sutherland (1830–1878), ran a law office in Walkerton for 20 years and was elected reeve in 1872. He was from Jamaica, the son of a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother.

What few know is that Sutherland single-handedly rescued Queen’s University from financial oblivion.

There are no photographs of Sutherland and for over a century his achievements went unacknowledged. However it’s possible to piece together the main points of his life.

His father, Andrew Sutherland, Sr. (1757-1840), was Scottish, born in Clyne, Sutherland, in the Highlands. Andrew moved to the Caribbean, and from 1794 to 1798 he was overseer at Orange Vale estate in St. George, Jamaica. The plantation produced coffee and cattle.

Andrew Sutherland rose in stature and became owner of Rose Hill plantation in St. George from 1815 to 1839. His son Robert Sutherland was born in 1830, according to his gravestone, and grew up on the plantation. When he was ten his father died.

Andrew’s will bequeathed Rose Hill to “my reputed children of colour and their mother”. He named his six children (Robert was the fourth) and “old Margaret Sutherland their mother, a black woman, my old housekeeper”. Andrew divided up the plantation, bequeathing 40 acres each to the children and their mother.

In 1849 19-year-old Robert arrived in Kingston, Canada West, to study at Queen’s University, founded only eight years previously. The fledgling university welcomed 14 freshmen that year.

Robert must have had help from someone to pay for his tuition and room and board, although not his father, who had died nine years before.

His friend and classmate at Queen’s was James Maclennan, who became a Supreme Court judge, and acted as executor of Sutherland’s will.

Highly successful at Queen’s, Robert won 14 academic prizes and was distinguished for his skills as a debater.

Robert Sutherland graduated in 1852 with a double-honours B.A. in mathematics and classics, a notable achievement at that time. And it made him the first Black university graduate in Canada.

Sutherland then studied law at Osgoode Hall (Law Society of Upper Canada) in Toronto. When he was called to the bar in 1855 he became Canada’s first Black lawyer.

Robert opened his first law office in Berlin (Kitchener). In 1856 he advertised in the local newspaper, the Berlin Telegraph, as a barrister, conveyancer, attorney at law and solicitor in the Court of Chancery.

Bruce Herald 1861.jpg

In the April 12, 1859 Berlin Chronicle you could read that Sutherland “gained the respect and friendship of all by his kindly manner and strict integrity.” Evidently he was well liked and respected.

After three years in Berlin Sutherland moved to Walkerton. He bought bought a quarter acre in 1860 at 249 Durham Street East. He owned a house on Peter Street South and in 1866 he bought another property further west on the north side of Durham Street East. Both purchases were without mortgages, so he likely paid cash. His law office was in a building where the Walkerton Library now stands.

Sutherland started advertising in the Bruce Herald in 1861. In the Walkerton of that day, there were 700 people and eight lawyers other than Sutherland. (It became the county town in 1865.)

For 20 years Sutherland worked mainly as a conveyancer, handling land title registrations and preparing wills and indentures.

At that time the Black community of Canada West was small, mainly comprising Black Loyalists and fugitive American slaves who had fled in the 1860s via the Underground Railway. The 1871 Canadian census reported that there were only 21,500 Black Canadians in all of the new Confederation.

We may speculate that Sutherland helped Black people in the area secure title to their land, which gave them the right to vote in Bruce County.

Robert Sutherland did well in Walkerton, so well that in 1869 he was listed in the Province of Ontario Gazetteer and Directory as one of the town’s “leading citizens”. In 1872 he was elected reeve of the newly-incorporated Town of Walkerton, becoming the first Black reeve in Bruce County. He also represented Walkerton at Bruce County council. Sutherland did not run again in 1873.

He never married, and employed a married woman, Jessie Hannah, to run his household. The 1871 Ontario census lists Robert Sutherland and, living in the same household, Jessie Hannah and two children, Robert and Margaret Hannah. Jessie’s occupation is given as servant.

Sutherland died in Toronto on June 2, 1878 of pneumonia. His will left his estate of $12,700 to Queen’s University, which was about equal to the university’s annual budget. This bequest was a lifesaver for Queen’s. The university had just lost most of its endowment in a bank collapse and was on the verge of being annexed by the University of Toronto.

Robert Sutherland was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, in a plot paid for by his old friend from Queen’s, James Maclennan, later to become a Supreme Court justice.

His role in saving Queen’s University attracted little attention until the 21st century. At Queen’s today, numerous academic prizes, bursaries and fellowships named after him honour his legacy. A building on campus was renamed Robert Sutherland Hall in 2009.

For larger view, Click on Image

The Walkerton Library contains the Robert Sutherland Archives Room. A plaque dedicated to Sutherland was also mounted in the Walkerton Courthouse.

A good summary of his life appears at the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre site brucemuseum.ca/collection/robert-sutherland.

For more on Black settlers, see Sylvia Hasbury’s 2013 book “Bruce County’s Black Pioneers”.