AUGUSTA, Maine — The statue of a Maine-born chief justice who voted to uphold a landmark Supreme Court decision that institutionalized racial segregation will be removed from the Kennebec Courthouse lawn.
After months of public pressure, Kennebec County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to move the statue of Melville Fuller to a different location.
Commissioner Chair Patsy G. Crockett saw the commissioners’ vote as a necessary step toward addressing systemic racism in Maine.
“We must have courage to act affirmatively. We must become anti-racist. It’s not good enough to just say that we’re against racism,” Crockett said.
The decision caps a movement to remove the statue that began last summer and originated 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.
Crockett supported moving the statue to a more appropriate location where Fuller’s life could serve educational purposes and be presented in context.
“Having a statue in front of the courthouse to honor Melville Weston Fuller, who presided over the court and sided with the majority of justices in the Plessy v. Ferguson ‘separate but equal’ decision, does not represent my values. This court ruling helped to create decades of racial segregation and I do not believe that Kennebec County should convey to others that we in any way support that decision,” Crockett said.
The statue’s next home is undecided. It was originally installed in 2013 as a private donation from a descendant of Fuller’s.
Michael Alpert, president of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, said in December that Plessy v. Ferguson “did more to harm America than any other Supreme Court ruling since our country’s founding.”
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 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.
Ridgeley Fuller, a Belfast resident and another descendant of Melville Fuller, thanked the commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting for a vote that acknowledges the harm caused in part by her ancestor’s legacy.
“As I understand it, the work that America has to do now is to really consider and deal with this white supremacy,” Fuller said.
“We know that the first step in any kind of reparations is acknowledgment, and I think you’ve taken a very strong step in acknowledging what has existed in our society. It makes for healing to begin to happen. Thank you,” Fuller said.
There is no date set for the statue’s removal, county administrator Bob Devlin said.