The statue of Melville W. Fuller, who was born in Augusta in 1833 and served as the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, outside the Kennebec County Courthouse in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — When the Kennebec County Commissioners voted in February to remove a controversial statue from the Kennebec County courthouse grounds, they had no idea where it would go or who would pay to move it.

A proposal from the donor of the statue of Melville W. Fuller might offer a solution for county and state officials who have been considering its fate.

On Thursday, Stephen Smith, a lawyer representing Robert Fuller Jr., suggested his client is willing to take back his gift.

“Mr. Fuller certainly appreciates tight budgets, and frankly has been quite philanthropic in his endeavors, and I am sure would like to assist in some fashion,” Smith said. “He’s trying to figure out how best that might be accomplished. One of the things that’s been kicked around is him simply agreeing to take the statue back and dealing with its relocation on his own.

“That just might solve a whole bunch of problems, at least from a practical perspective. And then we can move on to bigger and better things.”

Smith made the proposal Thursday at the second meeting of the committee appointed by the county commissioners to find a new location for the statue of Fuller, who was born in Augusta in 1833 and served as the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States when it decided Plessy v. Ferguson in 1898, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine that legalized racial segregation in the United States for decades.

County commissioners are expected to consider the suggestion when they meet later this month.

This process was triggered by a letter from the Maine Judicial Branch last summer asking commissioners to consider moving the statue from county-owned property in front of the county courthouse because of Fuller’s link to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

The decision legalized racial segregation of public facilities if the facilities were equal in quality. As chief justice, Fuller presided over the court when it reached that decision, siding with the majority.

Andrew M. Mead, acting chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, has written the statue’s prominent location could suggest the Maine Judicial Branch considers Fuller’s connection to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision to represent ideals supported by the Maine justice system.

At the time the letter was sent, Black Lives Matter protests were highlighting the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of police, and of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.

In many cities and towns across the country, statues of or monuments to Confederate Army officers and soldiers, Christopher Columbus and others who have supported racist policies have been removed.

The statue of Melville W. Fuller, who was born in Augusta in 1833 and served as the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, outside the Kennebec County Courthouse in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Two weeks ago, the committee appointed to find a new location for the statue mulled a suggestion the Fuller statue could go to the Maine State Museum, but that was not a clear-cut solution.

The museum is now closed and plans are underway to shift its collection to storage, but it was not clear the statue could be accommodated.

Bernard Fishman, director of the Maine State Museum, said the statue, which without the base weighs about 200 pounds, could probably be stored with the state’s collection, but that could not happen until fall, when storage space that has been identified is expected to be ready.

While storing the statue might be a possibility, it remains unclear if the state can acquire it, according to Fishman. He said several practical issues would have to be resolved before that could happen. The museum has committees that review acquisitions and would have to weigh in on that, but the museum has no space and no funds to make that happen.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, assistant House majority leader and committee member, said she understood the statue had been a gift to the county, but she noted the conversation has not happened at the state level.

“I don’t think it would be right to assume that everyone in the state wants to see — no matter where we figure out where the statue could go — that everybody would want it to go anywhere,” said Talbot Ross, a Democrat from Portland. “I think we need to put something in the mix that there needs to be more public engagement. Particularly the population most impacted by this history, I’m not sure they’ve had the chance to weigh in.”

While she said she did not think the statue should go to the state’s Cultural Building, which houses the Maine State Museum, Talbot Ross said having an educational opportunity is important.

The commissioners’ next regularly scheduled meeting is April 20, and the committee’s next meeting is set for April 22.

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