The Kennebec County Commissioners heard some heated comments this month when they held a public hearing to decide what to do with a statue of 19th century jurist Melville W. Fuller.

This hearing followed a letter sent in August from Maine’s Acting Chief Justice Andrew Meade on behalf of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Like many monuments this year, the statue in Fuller’s memory is under debate because Fuller’s acts in life cast aspersions on the current members of Maine’s judiciary. That’s why, Meade wrote, the statue should be moved from its current home in front of the Kennebec County Courthouse in Augusta.

Like many statues around the country this year, this piece of commemoration should be moved to a new location that allows for historical context.

Born in Augusta, Fuller studied law and rose through the ranks of Illinois politics to become the Chief Justice of the United States in 1888. Fuller presided over the Supreme Court from 1888-1910 through the term’s five different presidents. While Fuller was an active jurist on many decisions, the one raised by the Maine Judicial Branch and public comments was Fuller’s joining with the majority in 1896 in Plessy vs. Ferguson. This case, which ruled “separate but equal” as the law of the U.S., reinforced Jim Crow segregation for Black citizens and stood for the following half century until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 overturned it. The monument to Fuller was funded and gifted by a member of his family and was placed outside the courthouse in 2013.

While Fuller certainly was a powerful man in his time, I did not know who he was until the debate over his monument began in August. I was born, raised and am currently a resident of Maine, and at no point in my education did I learn of this man. Instead, I learned of Margaret Chase Smith, James Blaine and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. I was an avid student of Maine’s history, learning of the injustices done to the Wabanaki people and the residents of Malaga Island, but never knew of this man who helped usher in the acceptance of Jim Crow policies in federal law. The commemoration of Fuller cannot fully capture the man’s biography but it can signal to anyone who sees it that Maine stands for the racist policies of the past.

Monuments have power. As a researcher, I study all types of monuments erected after the Civil War, looking at how they shape public discourse and what we remember about the past. A statue to Fuller outside the Kennebec County Courthouse signals to those who enter that the promise of “equal justice under law,” an idea enshrined in the Constitution – and even famously quoted by Fuller in 1891 – might not be possible because of the man cast in bronze sitting outside the court, who decided that Black people did not deserve equity under the law.

Some may argue that Fuller was a man of his time, that a commemoration to him does not actually endorse all of his ideas. Some claim that it is just a remembrance from a family member of an important figure in Maine’s history. But, as this year’s protests surrounding monuments have shown, what we put in public spaces is important and what they mean can change over time, regardless of their original intent. What looks from one perspective as an innocent act is intentionally harmful from a different position. Fuller’s likeness belongs in a place like the Kennebec Historical Society or the Maine State Museum and Archive, where contextualization can occur, where his racist judicial positions are not brought to bear on today’s legal proceedings.

To paraphrase the eminent writer James Baldwin, the only way to change things is to face them. In order to face the history of Melville Fuller and the racist legal precedents that occurred under his watch in the highest court in the U.S., the least the Kennebec County Commissioners can do is remove his statue from in front of a courthouse where those seeking justice deserve, in Fuller’s own words, “equal and impartial justice under the law.”

By moving the monument to a museum, the work of historical interpretation and reckoning can begin.

— Special to the Telegram