Austin (KXAN) — When a group of University of Texas at Austin student-athletes sent out a message on social media June 12 demanding the university make an official commitment to addressing systemic and historic racism on the 40 Acres, a two-minute video posted four days earlier by UT’s College of Liberal Arts (COLA) began gaining attention.

Among other things, these student-athletes called on university leaders to get rid of the school spirit song ‘The Eyes of Texas’ and write a new song (which athletes would not be required to sing).

The COLA Twitter video, which gained traction on social media and now has more than 1.7K shares, shows a two-minute snippet of a 360 video from UT Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies Edmund T. Gordon’s racial geography virtual tour.

The COLA Twitter video has been shared by many current and former UT student-athletes, including Caden Sterns, Jase Febres, Malik Jefferson, Sam Acho, and Nate Boyer.

In the video, Gordon can be heard narrating a virtual tour of the Texas Cowboys Pavillion on UT Campus, with historic photos superimposed to add perspective.

While describing minstrel shows put on in the early 1900s by the Texas Cowboys student spirit group, Gordon noted, “this minstrel tradition was very strong at the university campus, and it’s actually the origins of another key aspect of Texas heritage.”

“Robert E. Lee, when he talked to his students at Washington & Lee University, would end each one of his presentations by saying ‘the eyes of the South are upon you,'” Gordon continued in the video. “Well, there was a president of the University of Texas who adapted that to Texas, and at the end of his presentations to faculty and staff he would say ‘the eyes of Texas were upon you.'”

Gordon explained that students poked fun at former UT President William Prather’s expression by developing a satirical song about “The Eyes of Texas” to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” This song was then sung for many years in the UT community by white people wearing blackface at minstrel shows, he said.

Gordon doesn’t follow social media, but he has been informed that this video from his racial geography tour has seen a spike in interest the past few days. People have been emailing him, some expressing racism and threats towards him, while others thanking him for the work he is doing.

A photo of Edmund T. Gordon, Associate Professor of African & African Diaspora Studies, UT Austin. Photo Courtesy UT Austin College of Liberal Arts.

“I think it’s critically important that students, in particular, understand where they are,” Gordon said in an interview with KXAN Monday about the racial geography tour. “And so I’m happy that people are using it as a resource.”

But he clarified, “I don’t take a particular position in relation to whether or not the song should be banned or kept or whatever. What I do want to do though, is starting a conversation about — not even just about the song — I want to start a conversation and have people be able to have the basic facts necessary to understand race on this campus.”

“To understand gender on this campus, too,” he added, “if you look more at the racial geography tour, there are gendered landscapes on this campus that need to be discussed as well as a bunch of other kinds of issues.”

While Gordon is glad his geography tour is reaching a large audience now, he feels, “a little sad that it took an atmosphere of horrific racial violence in the country itself for people to become interested in these kinds of things.”  

“But this is what I am: a professor,” he said. “And I am trying to create knowledge that enlightens folks and has people critically think about their circumstances and it seems like that’s part of what’s going on now.”

The History of the ‘Eyes of Texas’

“I think one of the things that people are not aware of or don’t think about is that at the time that the University of Texas was created, this was a Jim Crow institution and things like minstrelsy were common in Texas society and culture — at least in white Texas society culture” Gordon explained.

He refers to the University of Texas in its early years as a “neo-confederate university” noting that “every single [original UT] regent was an ex-Confederate Officer except for one, he was a Confederate diplomat, and so it’s steeped in that.”

Gordon explained that former UT Austin president Wiliam Prather studied in the 1870s under Confederate General Robert E. Lee who was president of the college now called Washington & Lee University. Lee was reported to end his speeches and conversations with faculty members with “the eyes of the South are upon you,” so Prather adapted the phrase when he became president at UT.

A photo of William Prather, Courtesy UT System.

The origins of this phrase are a piece of history the Texas Exes alumni association notes as well on their website, adding that UT students Lewis Johnson and John Land Sinclair put that phrase into a song to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as a joke on Prather.

The first performance of this show happened in 1903 at a minstrel show at the Hancock Opera House. Gordon explained that this satirical song riffing off of Prather’s message was performed in blackface, “at least in part because blackface performance was the way you did satirical and comical songs” at that time.

The student spirit group, the Texas Cowboys, was created in 1922 and Gordon explained that while the Cowboys were not the first people to perform blackface minstrelsy at UT, “the Cowboys picked up the tradition of blackface minstrelsy and they used it as part of their annual presentations up until 1964.”

A photo of UT students wearing blackface for a Cowboys Minstrels event. Photo Courtesy UT Austin College of Liberal Arts.

Among the recent demands for the university by student-athletes is the call to educate incoming students about the history of racism on campus, citing the Texas Cowboys as an example of something that incoming students should be taught about in this manner.

The Texas Cowboys, the spirit group formerly well known for firing ‘Smokey’ the cannon at athletic events, has been suspended by UT through May of 2025 following the fall 2018 death of Nicky Cumberland, alleged to be the result of hazing.

Gordon said while he doesn’t know exactly whether the Cowboy’s minstrel shows performed “The Eyes of Texas,” he does know that the students performing in these Cowboy minstrel shows wore blackface impersonated both Blacks and Hispanics.

Gordon said, “it became part of the lore and the tradition of the University of Texas, but it’s not just the ‘eyes of Texas’ that are rooted in white supremacy in that way, it’s the whole university.”

A photo of UT students performing at a minstrel show in blackface at Gregory Gymnasium. Photo Courtesy UT College of Liberal Arts.

He added that many people are unaware that there are buildings and facilities at UT that are named after Confederates.

In the middle of a summer night in 2017, UT removed the three Confederate statues from the campus.

“I’ve not been someone who’s actually called for removing statues or changing names although I’m not against that either if people decide that’s what has to be done, what I’m interested in is that people know what the history is,” Gordon reiterated.

He said his main message, in his classes and in his tours of UT’s racial geography, is “that it’s important to recognize and critically analyze what’s going on around us day to day because what’s going on around and around us day to day is critically informed by the past.”

“There are key inequities of the past that continue to structure what happens day to day in our lives, and by understanding what those are, perhaps we can begin to think through how it is that we can change those things in our day to day lives to get to a better place,” he added.

As for the student-athletes who have been calling for more recognition of the racial histories Gordon is trying to teach?

They got a response in the form of a community letter from new interim UT president Jay Hartzell which states, “I have begun scheduling conversations with students, including leaders of black student organizations and student-athletes, as well as other community members to hear their concerns and ideas directly.”

“Working together, we will create a plan this summer to address these issues, do better for our students and help overcome racism,” Hartzell said.

Now, the eyes of students and community members will be on UT leaders to see how they choose to write the next chapter of university history.