The Melville Fuller statue in front of the old Kennebec County courthouse Jan. 19 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The Kennebec County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to remove a controversial statue from county property six months after the state’s judicial branch raised the issue.

The statue, which was erected outside the Kennebec County courthouse in 2013, depicts Augusta native Melville Fuller, who served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court when it decided a case that institutionalized racial discrimination in the United States for more than five decades.

“I do not believe that Kennebec County should convey to others that we in any way support that court decision,” Patsy Crockett, chairwoman of the commissioners, said at the commissioners’ meeting. “That’s not to say we’re not proud that he was born in Augusta and the other good things he did in his life. But I, therefore, believe that the Melville Weston Fuller statue should be moved to a location more appropriate that would serve educational purposes and where the full history of his life could be discussed.”

Commissioner George Jabar noted that while he supports moving the statue, he thinks there is a place for Fuller in Maine history, which deserves to be recognized.

“Whether it’s perceived or real, he’s associated with some level of segregation or racial injustice and the placement in front (of) our judicial center after listening to everything is not appropriate,” Jabar, an attorney, said. “I am hoping we can find a place that’s appropriate that recognizes his accomplishments.”

At the suggestion of Commissioner Nancy Rines, commissioners are expected to appoint a committee to identify a new home for the statue. While the details of the committee’s work and membership are still being developed, county officials say they expect the statue will be moved later this year when the weather improves.

The statue was a gift to Kennebec County from Robert Fuller Jr., a cousin of the elder Fuller. Commissioners approved the donation in 2012, and Fuller provided all the funding for the project’s estimated $40,000 cost.

It’s not clear who will pay the cost of moving the statute, which stands a little less than 4 feet tall and sits on a granite block. 

Stephen Smith, the attorney who represented Robert Fuller in the hearing, noted there are significant practical considerations in moving the statue and offered to serve on the committee.

Robert Devlin, Kennebec County administrator, said installing the statue required closing off State Street and the use of a crane. Before the statue could be set in place, a foundation had to be poured.

Last summer, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests in Maine and across the country following the high-profile deaths of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota, the Maine judicial branch sent a letter to Kennebec County commissioners asking them to consider moving the statue from county-owned property in front of the county courthouse.

“The statue occupies a solitary, prominent position of almost iconic significance and its presence reflects on all of us,” Andrew Mead, acting chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, wrote. “It suggests that the Maine Judicial Branch is holding out the career of Chief Justice Fuller, including Plessy, as a symbol of what the Maine justice system stands for.”

A survey of the state’s judicial officers conducted by the judicial branch, showed a consensus that the location of the Fuller statue is not consistent with its values, Mead wrote. And because of the “profound” association between Fuller and that court decision, Maine judges do not want to be linked to him.

“Given our commitment to racial justice, we should take every opportunity to examine and re-examine our positions, polices and practices,” Mead wrote.

Fuller, who was born and raised in Augusta, was appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1888 by President Grover Cleveland. Eight years later, the Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that established the separate but equal doctrine that paved the way for legal racial segregation of public facilities if the facilities were equal in quality. Fuller didn’t write the decision, but he sided with the majority of justices in the case.

A December public hearing drew a wide range of comments from a suggestion that the statue be melted down and turned into plumbing fittings to moving it to another location with a plaque offering historical context.

County officials also accepted written testimony following the hearing, but comments also came directly to commissioners, were published as letters to the editor and appeared on Facebook.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Frank O’Hara, who is a member of Friends of the Maine State Museum, said he had asked Maine State Museum Director Bernard Fishman whether the museum is an appropriate place for an exhibit including the statue and Fuller’s legacy is presented as context.

Fishman didn’t immediately return a call for comment. Currently, the Maine State Museum is closed for renovations.

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