Recently, Kennebec County commissioners voted unanimously to remove a controversial statue of Supreme Court Chief Justice Melville Fuller from county property in front of the Kennebec County Courthouse.
An Augusta native, Fuller presided over a landmark Supreme Court case that institutionalized racial segregation.
The commissioners’ decision follows a similar decision in Bangor to remove a statue of a Portuguese explorer from the Bangor waterfront.
Morning Edition host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Rebekah Bryer of Bowdoinham, a doctoral scholar at Northwestern who studies monuments and public commemorations, about the removal.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Bryer: A lot of statues that have come down in the past couple of years have been explicitly related to Confederate soldiers. Or recently, this summer, it was Christopher Columbus statues coming down. But we don’t have a great framework to talk about the sort of more insidious levels of white supremacy, as sort of encapsulated by the Melville Fuller statue.
Melville Fuller was a Supreme Court chief justice who sided with the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which announced that “separate but equal” was the law of the land in the 1890s. So rather than being explicitly Confederate as we sort of imagine during the Civil War, Fuller supported the Jim Crow-era segregation, and for those who were against the statue, myself included, it was pretty clear that a statue of Melville Fuller doesn’t really belong in front of a place that proclaims equal justice under the law.
Mitchell: So how do we balance the legacy of people like Fuller? People like Cecil Rhodes, who established the Rhodes Scholarship but was also a raging colonialist and mining magnate in South Africa, or Esteban Gomez, the Portuguese explorer who came to Bangor and also kidnapped the Wabanaki people. How do we find balance there? And what is the statue actually accomplishing?
I think the reality is that we ask monuments to do too much in our landscape. When we put up a monument to someone, often it is in praise or in celebration or in mourning. The monument is literally just a bronze and stone symbol of what that person is. It makes really flat what that person could be. So in the example of Melville Fuller, a lot of important legal historical precedent, but it has this really ghastly sense of racial suppression behind it. In the case of the Gomez statue, we have lauded, for centuries, these explorers, these conquistadors who came to United States, without grappling with the indigenous people who were already here and what that violence did, which was create a genocide.
My personal belief is that monuments hold a lot of power, which is why we have to be really careful about who we commemorate, and why this person should be commemorated. And if that commemoration isn’t working for us anymore, I think we need to be OK with removing it.
So what are some discussions around other figures in Maine who are being commemorated maybe through statues now?
We have statues to people like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who we celebrate, and rightly so because he was a hero. Then we also have statues, for example, in Portland, to the filmmaker John Ford, an important local figure, but also portrayed Native Americans horrifically in his films. We all have to work to understand that it is a complicated issue. And a commemorative landscape like ours should be allowed to have that tension. What we don’t want is people to be harmed by seeing these statues in their daily life.
So what should be done with such statues, then?
I think it’s a discussion. I think, oftentimes in this conversation, it can be either we take it down or it stays up, and there’s a gray area, as there is to most things in life. My personal opinion, which comes from my years of studying, is that they should be put into museums where contexts can actually be given. So you’re removing it from public space, where it’s not going to be a hindrance to people who want to see an example of the Fuller statue, equal justice under the law, by having to walk by this man who said that separate but equal was fine. But it can be in a museum like the Maine State Museum or the Kennebec Historical Society, where you can provide the context of who this man was, what he did, and give a more full account of who this person is, rather than just the symbol on the lawn.