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

AUGUSTA — In the middle of a meeting Thursday to consider where to move the controversial Melville Fuller statue came two questions no one had yet contemplated.

“If everyone has decided that no one wants to be associated with this statue,” Israel Mosley said, “why are we sitting here talking about spending potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to find it a location, and/or spending public money to house this when it was privately funded to begin with?

“How does this become our collective problem?”

Thursday’s meeting was set up by the Kennebec County Commissioners after the board voted unanimously in February to remove a statue of Augusta native Melville Fuller from the grounds of the Kennebec County courthouse.

As the eighth chief justice of the United States, Fuller presided over the Supreme Court and joined the majority in 1896 when deciding Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that institutionalized the “separate but equal” doctrine and for decades legalized racial discrimination in the United States.

While the commissioners’ vote addressed concerns raised last year by the Maine Judicial Branch that Fuller’s association with the Plessy decision was so profound that Maine judges do not want to be linked to that association, that vote did not determine where the statue — a gift to the county erected on county property — ought to go or who should pay for that move.

The decision upheld the constitutionality of segregation laws for public facilities if the segregated facilities were equal in quality. That decision was overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which found segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

The judicial letter was sent during months of unrest across the United States as a series of protests following the killings Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, George Floyd in Minnesota and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, during which thousands of people decried violence against Black people, in some cases at the hands of police.

In the wake of those protests, statues and monuments to Confederate Army officers and soldiers, Christopher Columbus and others who have supported racist policies have been taken down.

Other than sending the letter seeking a public hearing, the Judicial Branch has not taken part in the process.

For that, the commissioners have put together a relocation committee consisting of commissioners Nancy Rines and Patsy Crockett, assistant Majority House Leader Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, Rep. Charlotte Warren, local historian Frank O’Hara, Maine State Museum Director Bernard Fishman, and Stephen Smith, a lawyer who represents Robert Fuller Jr., who donated the statue in 2014.

The meeting was the start of that conversation, but it was by no means the end of it.

“We need to identify some opportunities where we can move this statue to,” Rines, the committee chairwoman, said at the outset of the Zoom meeting.

The statue of Melville Fuller, who served as the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, is seen last Aug. 11 in front of the old Kennebec County Courthouse, on the corner of State and Winthrop streets in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

While it is not clear no one wants to be associated with the statue, it is clear no one to date has offered to take it on or fund its move.

O’Hara said he has thought about where the statue could go, including the University of Maine Law School, Bowdoin College in Brunswick or the Kennebec Historical Society in Augusta, all places with connections to Fuller that could show the context of the late 19th century and the racial politics of the time. But the best place, he said, would be the Maine State Museum, also in Augusta.

“In a theoretical way,” said Fishman, the museum’s director, “having the statue at the museum, within a contextual exhibit in a somewhat-balanced presentation, would be a good thing. But the museum has been closed for nine months, and we will be closed for another two years because of the enormous capital repair project going on in the cultural building.”

Fishman said the museum, as it now stands, has no space to accommodate the statue and the exhibit that ought to accompany it. There is also not adequate storage space.

“There could be potential interest,” Fishman said, “but in a practical sense, it would be very difficult. Besides which, we have no money.”

Fishman noted storage for the state’s collections and artifacts is in short supply, and, in his opinion, working with other agencies that need storage space, including the state archives and state library, makes sense but is not now in the works.

Warren said she would not support moving the statue from one outside location to another, and she would not want to see it on the Capitol grounds, because it would send the same message about unequal access to justice that it suggests at its current location.

“Maybe we’re biting off more than we can chew in one discussion,” Warren said. “What if we decided to break this up a bit and come up first with how are we going to get the statue taken down and where are we going to store it. And maybe a later conversation is when are we going to take it out of storage and where are we going to put it.”

Smith said if the statue is stored, particularly outside, he would have concerns on behalf of his client about its security.

Mosely, who has organized Black Lives Matter protests in Kennebec County, was one of the people who spoke in favor of removing the statue at a public hearing commissioners held in December.

Beth Newman, left, Brittney Cooley and Brittany Smith hold signs during a rally last September at the old Kennebec County Courthouse in Augusta. People gathered at the corner of State and Winthrop streets to demand the removal of the statue of Melville Fuller, who served as the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

His comments were echoed by Talbot Ross, who asked whether a decision had been made that it is the public’s responsibility to find a place for the statue and be responsible for storing it.

“I have heard no discourse that it’s the public’s responsibility,” she said. “There was a question — ‘Why can’t we just give it back?'”

Robert Devlin, Kennebec County administrator, said commissioners had accepted the gift for placement in front of the courthouse. In addition to the statue, Robert Fuller paid for the concrete slab under the statue, its granite base, the placement of statue and the landscaping around it.

He said the county has no room to store it.

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