AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than six months after the University of Texas at Austin released its findings on the historic origin of its alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas,” campus administrators outlined the next steps for UT’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
The Eyes of Texas History Committee released a report in March summarizing its findings on the alma mater, which debuted at a downtown Austin minstrel show in May 1903. Despite its initial performance at a minstrel show and the likely presence of blackface, the report found that the lyrics’ intents were not “overtly racist.”
“The research leads us to surmise that intent of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist. However, it is similarly clear that the cultural milieu that produced it was. And the fact that the song was, for decades, sung and revered on a segregated campus has, understandably, blurred the lines between intent and historical and contemporary impact. This complicates its understanding and explains how different people experienced the song in vastly different ways.”Eyes of Texas History Committee Report: March 2021
Origin, historical uses of ‘The Eyes of Texas’
While “The Eyes of Texas” was first performed at a downtown Austin minstrel show in May 1903, debates over the origin of the titular phrase have long been held. A popular theory was the phrase took inspiration from Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who allegedly would say “the eyes of the South are upon you” while president of Washington College.
Per the committee’s report, the claims Lee inspired the phrase date back to a 1938 memoir written by retired engineering dean T.U. Taylor. However, the report noted discrepancies in Taylor’s account.
“The committee’s research revealed multiple errors in Taylor’s remembrance,” the report read. “What is more, research failed to discover in the records of Washington & Lee University (as Washington College is now called) evidence that Lee ever closed an address to the students with the phrase attributed to him by the Taylor account.”
Since its origin, the song has been used at a minstrel show as well as at the funeral for former UT President William Prather’s death in 1905. Its first noted use at a spring commencement ceremony was recorded in 1916.
It’s also historically been used in some campus protests. In 1944, students used “The Eyes of Texas” as a rallying cry after UT President Homer Rainey was fired after hiring an “allegedly gay professor, and it was further alleged [Rainey] wanted to admit African Americans to the university.”
What diversity, equity initiatives are in store?
The report also noted recommendations made by UT students, faculty and alumni amid ongoing national dialogues on racial and equity initiatives on college campuses. These recommendations ranged from enhanced academic courses and teachings centered around the history of “The Eyes of Texas,” as well as funding allocations to campus departments.
“I think what [the committee] did was really modeled for us how to have difficult conversations about a topic that’s hard,” Dr. LaToya Smith, vice president for the division of diversity and community engagement, said. “And not only that, they have really sparked future conversations about what we need to be in the future and the type of institution we really need to be thinking about, and how we are inclusive as a campus.”
While the song remains UT’s alma mater, the report helped spur short and long-term initiatives for the university to create a more equitable environment for current and former students, as well as the greater Austin community. Last week, UT celebrated the opening of the new John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building in east Austin, which provides university resources like grant-writing assistance and community advocacy to area residents.
Since the report’s release, UT also launched a five-year, $1.25 million funding reallocation from UT Athletics’ revenue to the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies to enhance program resource and offerings.
“The educational component is integral, right?” Dr. Smith said. “We have to know our history and we have to know all of our history. And not only do we have to know it, we have to learn from it and move forward.”
Long-ranging initiatives in the works include an East Mall tribute to the Precursors, the original Black students to integrate UT’s campus in 1956. The university has been collaborating with alumni from that inaugural integration on this tribute, expected to complete in a few years.
Dr. Edmund Gordon, UT Austin’s vice provost for diversity, is helping coordinate those physical monuments honoring the Precursors as well as establishing scholarship opportunities for future students.
“[The precursor tribute] is really honoring those students and alumni who really opened the door both literally and figuratively to campus wide diversity, equity and inclusion,” Smith said.