For more than 40 years, Fort Sumter has flown six flags, including four banners that flew overhead during the four years of America’s Civil War.
But the recent slayings of nine black parishioners during a Bible study inside the Emanuel AME Church prompted the fort to take down four of those flags, including two flags of the Confederacy, as a gesture of sympathy and sensitivity.
The suspect being held in the shooting reportedly said he hoped to start a race war, and his actions have prompted South Carolina, other Southern states and the nation to re-evaluate policies regarding public displays of the Confederate flag.
Tim Stone, superintendent of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie National Monument, said Fort Sumter’s four flags were lowered the day after the shooting.
“The tragedy has made all of us re-evaluate our role in the community and in the nation,” he said.
On Thursday, the National Park Service, which runs the fort, issued a directive to remove Confederate flag items such as banners, belt buckles and other souvenirs from its gift shops, though books, DVDs and other materials showing the flag in a historical context may remain for sale.
On the same day, the Park Service also instructed its parks and related sites to not fly flags other than the U.S. flag and respective state flags outside their historic context.
Kathy Kupper, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said the new policy removes the Confederate flag from visitors centers and the like, but not from re-enactments, living history programs or battlefield sites where the flag marks historical troop positions.
Stone said the fort’s wayside markers explaining the history behind the fort’s various flags will remain, “but we probably won’t be re-raising them per the director’s policy.”
The removed flags include the first and second national flags of the Confederate States of America as well as two earlier versions of the U.S. flag. Stone said the four banners had historical ties to the fort, which was surrendered by Union forces in 1861 as the war began but retaken by them as the war wound to an end.
The series of flags were first raised in 1972, and Stone said they brought few complaints. “There was on occasion some comment of why we were flying the Confederate flags,” he said. “We explained the historical context of that.”
But Stone said he grew more sympathetic to concerns about the flags when he noted some boaters entering Charleston Harbor would pass by them without any interpretation explaining why they were there.
“I think that concern has some legitimacy, and we need to be sensitive to the community and the American people,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of it in that perspective.”
Stone said it is unclear what will become of the four flagpoles that were improved as recently as 2007 in preparation for the Civil War’s sesquicentennial but now no longer serve a purpose.
“A lot of this is happening very quickly,” he said.