AUGUSTA, Maine — The fate of a statue of a Maine-born former Supreme Court chief justice who upheld racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine is expected to be decided next week.
The possible removal of a statue of Melville Fuller, a Maine-educated former Supreme Court chief justice, from the Kennebec County Courthouse lawn will be discussed by Kennebec County commissioners on Feb. 16, according to county administrator Robert Devlin. Commissioners could vote to remove Fuller’s statue that day.
The momentum to remove the statue came from the Maine Supreme Court. Because Fuller presided over the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, which institutionalized racial segregation and led to Jim Crow laws, his statue should not stand outside the courthouse, said Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead in an August letter on behalf of the court to the Kennebec County commissioners.
“Given our commitment to racial justice, we should take every opportunity to examine and re-examine our positions, policies and practices,” Mead wrote.
Commissioners held a public hearing on the issue in December 2020 and a majority of letters they received have supported the statue’s removal, according to Devlin.
Michael Alpert, president of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, said that Plessy v. Ferguson “did more to harm America than any other Supreme Court ruling since our country’s founding.”
“Plessy provided the legal foundation for a system of brutal repression that has had terrible consequences to this day. And all of these consequences were intentional. The 1896 Fuller court was part of a larger deliberate effort to economically and socially re-enslave African American citizens. Plessy was un-American — it was, in fact and effect, anti-American — and cannot be justified or rationalized in any way. And if Plessy cannot be justified, neither can the current placement of the Fuller statue. Melville Fuller may have a place in American history, but his place in American justice is an abomination. Walking past the Fuller statue, no African American individual coming into your courthouse can assume that yours is a house of justice. No attorney of any race can assume that your courthouse is a place of fair treatment under law. The statue gives the wrong message; it gives a racist message; it is a stain on the good work of your court; and it must be removed,” Alpert said.
Some who have written commissioners to oppose the statue’s removal have suggested that officials should install a posting that contextualizes the decision.
Melville Fuller, who was born in Augusta and died in Sorrento, served as chief justice from 1888 to 1910. In the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, he joined the majority decision written by Justice Henry Billings Brown that said that “separate but equal” facilities and services didn’t violate the 13th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down racial segregation in public schools.
One dilemma is where to move the statue if it’s removed. Commissioners have been tasked with finding a more appropriate setting for the statue, which was privately donated by a descendant of the former chief justice and installed in 2013.
Commissioners are expected to consult with the family member about where the statue would go, but the vote whether to remove it is not dependent on securing its next location, Devlin said.
Several have made informal suggestions where to move the statue, like local historical associations or even Bowdoin College, where Melville Fuller attended. But no one has formally come forward.
“At this point, nobody is volunteering to take on the controversy,” Devlin said.