Workers at Antietam National Battlefield took Confederate flags, T-shirts and magnets off gift shop shelves Thursday as the National Park Service announced plans to stop selling some items with the increasingly controversial symbol.
Park service officials said they would stop "stand-alone depictions" of the familiar battle flag, which has 13 white stars on a blue "X" over a red field. They said educational items such as books, exhibits, and media showing re-enactments and interpretive programs may use images of the battle flag "in its historical context" as long as they cannot be "physically detached."
"We strive to tell the complete story of America," National Park Service director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in a statement. "All sales items in parks are evaluated based on educational value and their connection to the park. Any stand-alone depictions of Confederate flags have no place in park stores."
For the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, that meant handheld flags and other gift items came off the shelves Thursday morning, but books and educational CDs embossed with the flag remained available.
Meaghan Barry, the Antietam Battlefield gift shop manager, said very few items were removed, but customers might miss those products.
"I'm sure at some point someone will say the battle flag should come back, but we'll see how that comes," she said. "Visitors here side with their ancestors of both sides. They might want to have mementos and souvenirs of that family."
The flag, which was flown in battle by Confederate troops during the Civil War and adopted by white supremacist groups in the 20th century, has come under more scrutiny since the shooting deaths last week of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C. The suspected shooter, Dylann Roof, appears in photographs online with the flag in one hand and a gun in the other. He has been charged with nine counts of murder in what authorities are describing as a hate crime.
Wal-Mart, Amazon, eBay and Sears all said this week that they would stop selling merchandise bearing the flag, a major U.S. flag maker said it would stop manufacturing and selling the flag, and several Southern states have revived long-running debates about taking it down from government buildings.
Aides to Gov. Larry Hogan said he was pursuing steps to stop the state Motor Vehicle Administration from issuing license plates bearing the flag and to recall those now in circulation. The state has issued nearly 500 such tags since the Sons of Confederate Veterans qualified for the specialty plates two decades ago.
Antietam, the site of the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, is the best-known of Maryland's Civil War battlefields. Rob Kropp, visiting from Colorado on Thursday, said Confederate flags should remain available in the gift shop.
"Ultimately, they were still Americans, and I think there were heroes on both sides," said Kropp, 49. "It's part of American history. How far do you go? Are you going to start removing statues of General Lee?"
Mary Lou Focht, a tourist from Idaho, agreed.
"You can't just remove it from the picture because it represents something some people would consider negative," said Focht, 50.
The park service announced its plan to limit sales of the flag after the nonprofit association that operates some of its museums and bookstores began to remove items on its own. Jarvis said he asked other associations, partners and vendors to do the same.
Park superintendents and program managers will determine which items are appropriate, he said.
Tim Wolfe, a sociologist and professor at Mount St. Mary's University, called the Confederate flag "a sign of oppression and racial terrorism" that is inappropriate for most public spaces, including materials that are not explicitly educational.
"People who see it as a sign of Southern pride fail to recognize its history," he said.
Wolfe said that removing the flag should not be confused with silencing a conversation.
"We should continue to talk about the Civil War and about segregation and race relations," he said. "We would do ourselves a great disservice if we sweep that history under the rug and stop talking about it.
"I think we can use some of these symbols to better understand our history, and I think if we do that, fewer people would be drawn to the flag."
Stephen Kemmet owns Captain Bender's Tavern in Sharpsburg. When he heard that businesses were cutting ties with Confederate imagery, he said, he bought a battle flag to fly outside the bar and restaurant, along with an American flag.
"I'm here to preserve the heritage of this town, the Battle of Antietam, brother versus brother," he said. "That's what it's about."
Jim Kehoe, 68, owner of the Antietam gallery, which sells mostly Confederate Civil War memorabilia, said the South Carolina shooting was a "sickening tragedy," but there are "bigger problems" than people's associations with the flag.
"What people need to be worried about is what is happening in downtown Baltimore, what's happening in Chicago," he said. "The emphasis on this is completely misplaced."
Kehoe said his business has seen a "significant increase" in Confederate flag sales in the past three days.
"I consider it a distinct part of our history," he said. "I'm proud of it. I'm Southern. I'm not interested in political correctness."
Wolfe, too, said there are larger concerns than the flag.
"We can't hide from our history. We need to confront it," he said. "I worry that some people will say 'Well look, we elected a black president twice, we've taken down these symbols. What more do you want?'
"My response would be: I want a lot more."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.