AUSTIN (KXAN) — A letter last week from the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin last week makes clear that whenever UT’s Longhorn Band resumes performances, the band will be expected to perform the song “The Eyes of Texas.”

As movements for racial justice have continued in Austin and across the country the past few months, the university spirit song has been criticized for its origins in a phrase used by a Confederate general and for how it was initially performed as part of a tradition of minstrel shows by white students wearing blackface.

Back in June, UT student-athletes and other UT community members called for multiple changes to advance racial inclusivity on campus, including ending the use of The Eyes of Texas and replacing it with a new song.

In July, then-interim UT President Jay Hartzell announced a number of initiatives to promote diversity and support Black UT students, but he said the song will continue to be used. He offered the caveat that the university will “own, acknowledge and teach about all aspects of the origins of ‘The Eyes of Texas'” as the song continues to be sung and performed.

College of Fine Arts Dean Doug Dempster wrote a letter to UT’s band and Butler School of Music leaders on Sept. 24, making clear that “when the Longhorn Band performs, it will be expected to perform The Eyes of Texas.”

The letter notes “President Hartzell has set the expectation that our university community will revitalize the song’s meaning so that it may continue as our alma mater.”

“He has asked us to reunite around the song even as we acknowledge its origins,” Dempster wrote.

Dempster added that Hartzell, who has been confirmed as the university’s 30th president, will announce “continued efforts to document and acknowledge the song’s history” this week. A university spokesperson confirmed to KXAN that Hartzell would be making that announcement later this week.

In the letter to UT music leaders, Dempster noted that the song and its history had created tension for band members around a tune which has been a staple of university performances.

“I’m aware that students in the band are divided about the meaning and significance of The Eyes,” Dempster wrote. “Some feel they cannot in good conscience continue to perform it. Others take pride in the song. And I know yet others are conflicted. This is threatening the unity and viability of the band as a band.”

The Longhorn Band didn’t perform at UT football’s home opener at Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium on Sept. 12 and Dempster wrote that band members would not perform at the upcoming home game against Texas Christian University on October 3.

Dempster acknowledged that it is not safe to have the band inside the stadium right now due to the pandemic. But he added, “we clearly also need to have a more reasoned and informed discussion about the ‘Eyes of Texas’ before the band can continue with its public performances.”

He encouraged the band directors at UT to help “foster a dialogue among students in the band about moving forward together on this issue.”

UT student newspaper “The Daily Texan” reports that this letter from Dempster follows a July message from Butler School of Music Director Mary Ellen Poole which states that ensembles such as the Longhorn Band would not be penalized for refusing to play “The Eyes of Texas.”

After Dempster’s letter was published, the Daily Texan reported that more than 20 members of the Longhorn Band said they are not planning to play “The Eyes of Texas.”

UT played a recorded version of its alma mater tune before and after the Sept. 12 football game against UTEP, though football players were not required to sing along or stand in acknowledgement on the field. The song was played almost immediately as the clock hit zero in the fourth quarter while the players and coaches for both teams greeted each other on the field.

The Eyes of Texas

As UT Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies Edmund T. Gordon explained to KXAN back in June, former Confederate general Robert E. Lee used to end presentations at Washington & Lee University by saying “the eyes of the South are upon you.”

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

Former UT President William Prather, who studied in the 1870’s under Lee, then adapted that phrase for UT Austin, ending his own presentations by saying “the eyes of Texas are upon you.”

The origins of this phrase are a piece of history the Texas Exes alumni association lists on its 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 song happened in 1903 at a minstrel show at the Hancock Opera House. Gordon explained that this satirical song riffing on 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.

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

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.”

Gordon said in that June interview with KXAN, “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.”