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February 17, 2021

Statue of Augusta chief justice who presided on segregation ruling will be moved

Photo / Maureen Milliken The statue of Melville Fuller in front of Kennebec County Superior Courthouse in Augusta will be moved to a place where it can provide an educational function. Fuller, an Augusta native, was the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice sho presided over Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, a legal foundation for segregation.

The statue of Melville Weston Fuller, the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice who led the 1896 ruling that legally supported more than half a century of racial segregation, will be moved from the lawn of the Kennebec County Courthouse in Augusta.

The Kennebec County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to move the statue to a spot where it can serve an educational purpose. The three-member board will appoint a committee that will decide where the statue will go and other logistics of the move.

Melville Fuller presided over Plessy v. Ferguson, a decision that allowed "separate but equal" race-based discrimination across the country. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures equal protection under law, overruling the Plessy decision.

Commision Chair Patsy Crockett said at the meeting that while the city is proud of native Fuller, “I do not believe that Kennebec County should convey to others that we in any way support that court decision. We must become anti-racist. It's not good enough to just say we're against racism." 

She told Mainebiz this morning that she was very pleased with the vote to move the statue from In front of the court, where it's been since 2013.

"I feel it should be someplace like a museum, where the story of his whole life can be explained and have it be a learning experience," said Crockett, who is also president of the Kennebec Historical Society. She added that such a display would commemorate the issues surrounding Fuller, not celebrate the issues.

A statue of a man in judges robes on top of a granite pedestal that says Melville Weston Fuller and, among other things, chief justice of the U.S. Suprememe Court 1888-1910
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The state of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Melville Fuller has been in front of the Kennebec County Superior Court building on State Street in Augusta for eight years.

The board held a public hearing on the statue removal Dec. 1, and members said they've received a lot of feedback, most of it positive — "dozens and dozens of letters," said Commissioner George Jabar. But they said the feedback also showed people don't want the statue destroyed.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court in August, representing the state judicial branch, asked that the statue either be moved or dealt with in another way so it didn't occupy such a prominent position, which justices said contradicts the judiciary's commitment to racial justice. The judiciary, in a letter written to commissioners by acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead, asked that the commission consider either moving it or find another solution to the fact that "it's the only monument to Maine's justice system at one of our flagship courthouses."

The statue is on the lawn of the 191-year-old courthouse on the corner of State and Winthrop streets, part of the Kennebec County court complex that also includes the Capital Judicial Center and the Kennebec County jail. The statue is the only monument on the property.

Augusta native Robert G. Fuller Jr., a descendant of the chief justice, offered it as a gift, paying $40,000 to create and install the bronze statue. The gift was approved by the county commissioners in early 2012 and the statue was installed in August 2013. 

The statue was sculpted by Forest Hart, of Monroe, with the granite work and installation done by Tony Masciadri of S. Masciadri & Sons in Hallowell. Depicting Fuller seated, it's life-size, about 4 feet high because the 5-foot-1 justice is sitting, mounted on a granite pedestal that's 12 feet high.

Robert Fuller, a former Augusta attorney who lives in Maryland, has donated to a variety of causes in the capital area, most recently a $1.6 million commitment to the Cony High School athletic field complex, an increase from $500,000 he donated in 2019, which was announced last week.

Crockett told Mainebiz that Robert Fuller hired an attorney to represent him, but has not contacted the board directly about the statue. The attorney, Stephen Smith, gave all three commissioners with books about Melville Fuller and his life as chief justice, she said.

Smith attended Tuesday's meeting and offered to serve on the committee that will decide the statue's fate.

A 200-year-old granite palladian building with a small statue on a granite column in front
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The statue of Melville Fuller is the only one on the grounds of the Kennebec County court complex, and is in a prominent position, on the lawn of the historic 191-year-old Kennebec County Courthouse.

'It reflects on all of us'

The landmark segregation ruling came after Homer Plessy, a man of both Black and White heritage, tested Louisiana's segregated railroad car law by sitting in a car reserved for White people, not the "colored" car, as was required of anyone with any amount of Black heritage. Plessy and his supporters believed that separate facilities based on race violated the equal protection provision of the 14th Amendment.

The court voted 7-1 to uphold Louisiana's law, with Justice Henry Brown writing the majority opinion. Fuller voted in favor.  The court ruled that state bodies can make laws that are in the best interest of the health and welfare of citizens, and the 14th Amendment doesn't apply. Dissenter John Marshall Harlan wrote in his opinion that the Constitution "is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens," so any separation based on race is unconstitutional.

The August letter from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said there was "overwhelming consensus" by members of the state's judiciary that the statue and its location don't reflect the judicial branch's commitment to racial justice, "because the association between Chief Justice Fuller and the Plessy decision is so profound, and Maine judges do not want to be linked to that association."

The letter noted that Plessy "is indelible and widely known" and the statue "occupies a solitary, prominent position of almost iconic significance, and its presence reflects on all of us. It suggests that the Maine Judicial Branch is holding out the career of Chief Justice Fuller, including Plessy, as a symbol of what the Maine justice system stands for."

The judges said the statue should not "continue to be the monument that members of the public see as they approach the court."

Because the judicial branch doesn't own the statue or the land it's on, the judges can only suggest it be dealt with, but have no control over what happens. They said they support a community-wide review by the commission, with "the ultimate goal of assuring that what is outside the Kennebec County Courthouse and the Capital Judicial Center upholds the principles and values that the Maine judiciary seeks to uphold inside the courthouse."

"Given our commitment to racial justice, we should take every opportunity to examine and re-examine our positions, policies and practices," the letter says. 

Photo / Maureen Milliken
The informational plaque in front of the Melville Fuller statue on the lawn of the Kennebec County Courthouse doesn't mention the most famous and impactful decision he presideded over on the U.S. Supreme Court, Plessy v. Ferguson.

'Guardian of lliberty'

When the statue was installed, then-Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who attended, told the Kennebec Journal that Fuller was "an Augusta boy made good," known for his collegiality and administrative abilities, but she added that the Plessy decision was "one of the most reviled” of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is a good reminder that respected, capable people can do something that is so flatly wrong,” she said.

But neither the granite pedestal supporting the statue, which says in Latin, "Justice is the guardian of liberty," nor the sign in front of it, mentions Plessy v. Ferguson. The sign describes Fuller as "a tactful and self-effacing jurist who often assigned the more important opinions to justices other than himself in order to promote a sense of teamwork within the court."

It notes that when Fuller died, "the bar and judiciary eulogized him as one who, with few exceptions, successfully led the court through the challenges of the post-Civil War years and the grown of the American economy."

Fuller, born in 1833, was sworn to the bar in the courthouse in 1855. He was a city councilor  — at the time called the Augusta Common Council — and was also city solicitor that year. He moved to Chicago in 1856, where he practiced law and was a U.S. representative. President Grover Cleveland appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1888. He died in the Downeast town of Sorrento in 1910.

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