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

AUGUSTA — With the controversial statue of Melville Fuller set to go back to its donor, the committee appointed to help find a new location for the effigy of the former Supreme Court justice wants to ensure its educational significance is not lost.

But the work of the advisory committee has ended because of an agreement reached Tuesday between Robert Fuller Jr. and the Kennebec County Commissioners to return the statue to Fuller for $1, and to allow the statue to remain in place for up to 12 months while Fuller looks for a new home for it.

“Mr. Fuller certainly intends to move it as expeditiously as possible,” Stephen Smith, a lawyer representing Robert Fuller, said at Thursday’s committee meeting. “He has no desire to drag this project out, but there are certain inherent difficulties with moving that thing that just have to be addressed.”

Fuller’s offer to take back the statue was first aired at a meeting of the committee two weeks ago.

The statue of Melville Fuller, given to Kennebec County as a gift by distant cousin Robert Fuller, has been a point of controversy since last summer. Fuller, who was born in Augusta in 1833 and served as the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, presided over the high court and sided with the majority in 1896 when it decided Plessy v. Ferguson, a case that institutionalized the “separate but equal” doctrine that was the foundation of racist policies in the decades that followed.

The Maine Judicial Branch sent a letter to the Kennebec County Commissions last summer suggesting the statue be removed from in front of the Kennebec County Courthouse because of Fuller’s association with that decision, which is not consistent with the state’s values.

At that time, prompted in part by the killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, George Floyd in Minnesota and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, communities across the country — including Augusta, where protesters called for the Fuller statue to be taken down — were calling for a racial reckoning and the removal of statues and monuments commemorating Confederate Army officers and soldiers, Christopher Columbus and others who supported racist policies.

On Tuesday, a Minnesota jury found Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, guilty of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

The commissioners created the advisory committee in February after they voted unanimously the Fuller statue ought to be moved from in front of the Kennebec County Courthouse. That vote, however, identified neither a location where the statue should go nor a source of the money needed to pay for the move.

Over the course of several meetings, members discussed whether the Maine State Museum could take and display the statue, with appropriate historical context, but Director Bernard Fishman, who was a committee member, said the museum did not have the money to acquire it or store it along with the museum’s collections while the building that houses the museum undergoes renovations.

Historian Frank O’Hara, also a committee member, advocated strongly for the Maine State Museum to take the statue, saying a condition of the sale should be that the museum had first right of refusal.

“The museum needs to work with its board and needs to work with others to figure out how this could be done,” O’Hara said. “If they could figure that out, I would like that as a preferential place for this to land instead of on a private lot.”

“I think that’s a great suggestion,” Kennebec County Commissioner Patsy Crockett said, “but now the statue really belongs to Mr. Fuller, so I think you can be in touch with Mr. Fuller about that. It’s really not up to the County Commissioners, because it was a unanimous vote and he accepted.”

Ridgley Fuller, a cousin of Robert Fuller, said she would hate for Maine to lose the opportunity for the statue to be of educational significance to the state.

“I would appreciate some assurance that it will be an educational kind of nature, what happens to it,” she said.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, one of two state lawmakers on the advisory committee, suggested the County Commissioners might have been too hasty in voting this week.

“I was certainly surprised to read about it in the newspaper, that the decision had been made,” Warren said, “as opposed to learning of it together, or being a part of the decision. But that’s the way it goes.”

Warren said given Robert Fuller has 12 months to move the statue, there was not need to act so quickly.

Commissioner Nancy Rines, who has headed up the advisory committee, said while 12 months might feel like a long time, she hoped Robert Fuller is able to find a place to relocate the statue.

“He has an opportunity that maybe the commissioners didn’t have,” Rines said.

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