The statue of Melville W. Fuller, who was born in Augusta in 1833 and served as the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, is seen outside the Kennebec County Courthouse in Augusta on April 8. The statue has been a focus of debate since last summer, and a committee tasked with determining what should be done with the statue has decided to returned it to its donor. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — For $1, the statue of Melville W. Fuller will be returned to its donor and will be removed from in front of the Kennebec County courthouse within a year.

On Tuesday, Kennebec County commissioners agreed to a proposal by Robert Fuller Jr. to take back the statue of the late chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and Augusta native that he commissioned and gave to the county eight years ago on the 125th anniversary of Melville Fuller’s appointment to the country’s highest court.

“Mr. Fuller, as I have said and all the commissioners have said, we appreciate your generosity to the community and we thank you for taking this back,” said Commissioner Patsy Crockett, chairwoman of the commissioners.

Tuesday’s decision was the latest step in a process that started last summer.

In the face of the racial reckoning taking place across the country in the wake of high-profile killings of Black people, last summer the Maine Judicial Branch suggested county officials move the statue from its iconic position in front of the county courthouse because the presence of the statue was not consistent with its values.

Melville Fuller presided over the Supreme Court that in 1896 decided Plessy v. Ferguson, a case that established the separate but equal doctrine that paved the way for decades of racial segregation in the United States.

On Tuesday, Stephen Smith, an attorney representing Robert Fuller, said Fuller agreed to take the statue back and agreed to pay for the removal. He also said Fuller had asked the statue be allowed to stay in its current location until a new location can be found for it.

“Maybe not the whole time,” Smith said. “We need the time simply to find a new location without a lot of intervening storage costs.”

Fuller said he needed some time to shop the statue around.

In February, the three Kennebec County commissioners voted to move the Fuller statue, and a committee made up of state and county officials was named to make a recommendation about where it should go. That decision came after a Dec. 1 public hearing, followed by a public comment period.

While some ideas were floated as possible destinations — among them the Maine State Museum — no organization has stepped forward to offer to take the statue.

Bernard Fishman, director of the Maine State Museum and a member of the committee, said the museum had no funds to acquire the statue, and because the building that houses the museum is closed for renovations, state officials would have to find space to store it along with the museum’s collections.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, assistant House majority leader and committee member, said she understood the statue had been a gift to the county, but pointed out there had been no discussion at the state level about taking possession of the statue.

It was at the committee meeting earlier this month that Smith first suggested Fuller would be willing to take the statue back.

The result of Tuesday’s vote will be memorialized in a letter, which will note that Fuller will take on the cost of moving the statue.

The next meeting of the committee to find a new location for the statue is scheduled for Thursday.

Melville Fuller was born in Augusta in 1833. After graduating from Bowdoin College, he became a lawyer and shortly after moved to Chicago. President Grover Cleveland appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1888 and he was sworn in that year. Fuller served 22 years until his death in 1910.

In the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Fuller sided with the majority in upholding a law from Louisiana that required racial segregation of railroad passengers, establishing the separate but equal doctrine was constitutional.

That decision stood until 1954 with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared unconstitutional the laws establishing racial segregation in public schools.

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