AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tuesday morning, the University of Texas at Austin released a report on its alma mater “The Eyes of Texas,” examing the song’s lyrics and historical use. The report was gathered over the past several months by a team of 24 committee members made up of students, employees, and alumni, charged by the UT president to research the history of the song and its use. The findings led this committee “to surmise that intent of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist.”
However, the committee notes that it is “similarly clear” the cultural setting in which the song was created and debuted was overtly racist.
“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,” the committee wrote. “This complicates its understanding and explains how different people experienced the song in vastly different ways.”
After criticism over the song’s history reached a boiling point over the past year at UT, the university has indicated it hopes for this report to serve as a common set of facts Longhorns can use as they continue to put the song in context. The committee said that some of the facts and context it has uncovered “have never been systematically compiled and analyzed until now,” including facts about how the song came to be.
The committee acknowledges this song “debuted in a racist setting,” which the report’s authors suggest was common at the time the song originated (1903). At that time, Black students were barred from attending UT, in fact, it wasn’t until 1956 that the first African American undergraduate students enrolled at and attended UT.
“The exclusion of Black students at that time presents an opportunity to think about how they and other communities of color have fought for inclusion and the work that remains to ensure all members of our community feel they belong,” the committee wrote.
We are reading through the 59-page report now and will continue to update this story with more details.
Will the song remain at UT?
Consistent with what university and UT system leaders have been saying since July of 2020, UT Austin reiterated that the university will keep ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as its alma mater. The report notes this committee was created only to research and understand the song’s history and usage since its inception.
A brewing discussion
“The Eyes of Texas” drew criticism over the past year, due to perceived connections between the song’s origins and historic racism at the university.
Specifically, UT student athletes galvanized calls for the university to discontinue the use of the song in the summer of 2020 as movements for racial justice and police reform swept the country. Criticism of the song over the summer cited a racial geography project from a professor and documents from the history of the university and some organizations associated with it.
These sources indicate the song was inspired by a phrase from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and was performed at minstrel shows by students wearing blackface.
Was ‘The Eyes of Texas’ inspired by a phrase from a confederate general?
The committee concluded there “is a very low likelihood” the phrase “The Eyes of Texas are upon you” was inspired by Lee. More likely, the committee believes, the school spirit song’s phrasing was “a message of encouragement and accountability to the students and faculty at the then-fledgling University” (UT was founded two decades before the song was created).
While these sources suggested former UT Austin president William Prather coined the phrase “The Eyes of Texas are upon you” from a phrase from Lee that said “The Eyes of the South are upon you,” the committee could find no evidence directly proving that specific link.
Prather did study in the 1870s at the college now called Washington & Lee University when Lee was president of the college.
“Lee was clearly a beloved figure to Prather, but no primary source has been found connecting the phrase as something that Lee used,” the report said.
The committee believes the claims that “The Eyes of Texas are upon you” came from something Lee said trace back to a memoir in 1938 by a retired engineering dean, a memoir which the committee found “multiple errors in.”
Additionally, the committee could not find any evidence from Washington & Lee University that Lee had ever ended an address to students with “The Eyes of the South are upon you” as Taylor had claimed.
The report also noted phrases similar to UT’s alma mater could be found throughout history prior to 1903, including with President George Washington saying “the eyes of the nation are upon you.”
Was ‘The Eyes of Texas’ first performed at minstrel shows by students wearing blackface?
The first performance of this song is believed to have happened in 1903 at a minstrel show in Austin. The committee was able to confirm this.
They believe it was probably performed by white students in black face, but as committee chair, Professor Rich Reddick noted “the blackface thing, we are fairly certain what happened.”
He added the caveat: “but there was no photographic evidence of it.”
Owning the song’s history
UT President Jay Hartzell announced a committee in October that would “chronicle the full history of the ‘The Eyes’ and recommend ways we can openly acknowledge, share and learn from it.”
“‘The Eyes of Texas’ should not only unite us, but hold all of us accountable to our institution’s core values,” Hartzell said in July of 2020. “But we first must own the history.”
Ahead of the official release of the committee findings, the Austin American-Statesman reported on Saturday that the committee’s report is expected to challenge the narrative that the UT community has become familiar with about the song’s history over the past year. The chair of the committee told the Statesman that his team could not find evidence that “The Eyes of Texas are upon you” was inspired by a phrase used by Robert E. Lee.
Texas Monthly reported on Sunday that the committee did not find “racist intent” in the lyrics to the song and did not find that anything said or written by Lee was connected to the lyrics.
UT Austin told KXAN Monday that the university couldn’t share the report before its release. KXAN asked UT to confirm that the report could not find any historical connections to Robert E. Lee and The Eyes of Texas, and a spokesperson responded saying, “need to hold off until you read it to assess that.”
Conversation over UT’s alma mater reached a flashpoint again last week when the Texas Tribune published a report based on nearly 300 emails sent to UT Austin’s president, 70% of which demanded UT keep playing the song. In seventy-five of those emails, donors threatened to stop supporting the school financially if this did not happen. Two Longhorns football players also told the Texas Tribune that they were required to remain on the field after games when the song played because donors “were upset by athletes protesting the game day tradition.”
Hartzell responded to the Tribune story on March 2, alluding to racist comments in some of the emails the Tribune obtained.
“Out of the many emails I received this fall, a very small number included comments that were truly abhorrent and hateful,” Hartzell said in the statement. “I categorically reject them, and they bear no influence on any aspect of our decision-making.”
The UT president issued another statement in a letter to the community on March 5, blaming a spike in community frustrations that week was on the media, who he believes “have pushed a narrative that university donors are dismissive of our students’ concerns and have exerted undue influence over campus decision making.”
Hartzell also implied that conversations about the song on social media suggest the university “can’t solve problems together,” a suggestion he disagrees with. He went on to say that he believes the committee’s work and the discussion around The Eyes of Texas at UT will create “a new model for hard conversations.”
Hartzell acknowledged that the university reckoning with racism past and present will continue to be a key theme of discussion for the Longhorn community.
“Since I became president, the two most pressing issues we’ve faced have been the pandemic and unrest on campus in the wake of the senseless killing of George Floyd,” he wrote. “I firmly believe we are combating both with our talents, energies and, indeed, our kindness for others.”