“The Eyes of Texas,” the school song since the early 1900s and a staple at Longhorns games, has roots in blackface minstrel shows, according to historians. Going back even further, the words to the song were inspired in part by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who after the Civil War was a teacher at what would become Washington and Lee University, where he made an impression on future UT president William Prather by repeatedly telling students that “the eyes of the South are upon you.”
A professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at Texas, Edmund T. Gordon, said in June (via Texas Monthly) that with Prather going on to remind his own students that “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” a pair of UT students based a new school song on that phrase in 1903. They debuted it at an annual campus minstrel show, according to Gordon, who claimed the students were likely wearing blackface when they performed the song.
In addition, the melody of “The Eyes of Texas” is based on “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which has its own origins in minstrelsy and other stereotypical depictions of black people. Blackface, which white performers used while grossly exaggerating and mocking characteristics they saw in black people, is inextricably tied to minstrel shows, even as it has outlived the long history of that form of entertainment.
Gordon said of “The Eyes of Texas” last month (via KUT), “It also has other kinds of important meanings to people, and I don’t think it can be reduced to any one thing, but it does have racial undertones.”
A group of Texas football players asked that the song be discontinued last month as part of a list of requests intended to help make the school “more comfortable and inclusive for the black athletes and the black community that has so fervently supported this program.”
Other requests included renaming several campus buildings and adornments named for figures with ties to racist viewpoints or policies — or to the Confederate army, in some cases — and renaming part of the Longhorns’ stadium after the program’s first black player, Julius Whittier. Players also asked that UT donate 0.5 percent of the athletic department’s annual revenue to black organizations and the Black Lives Matter movement.
In his statement Monday, Hartzell said Texas would erect a statue of Whittier, honor several other notable black graduates of the school and rename one of the buildings cited by the players. In addition, the field at the football stadium will be renamed in honor of former Longhorns running backs Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.
Other planned measures, according to Hartzell, will expand the school outreach to underserved areas and increase diversity among the faculty. However, “The Eyes of Texas,” the university president said, “will continue to be our alma mater.”
“Aspects of its origin, whether previously widely known or unknown, have created a rift in how the song is understood and celebrated, and that must be fixed,” Hartell wrote. “It is my belief that we can effectively reclaim and redefine what this song stands for by first owning and acknowledging its history in a way that is open and transparent.”
Hartzell’s statement disappointed some at Texas, including student body president Anagha Kikkeri, who told KXAN Monday she was pleased one building was being renamed but pointed out that another with ties to the school’s racist past was not and that “The Eyes of Texas” remained the school song.
“This should be the beginning of many changes,” she said, “because we should be striving to make campus safe and better for our Longhorns and for black students who have not felt that way for so long.”
“UT continuing to support that tradition, saying that they’ll educate people — I think it’s fair to say a lot of people know that this song has racist origins,” Emily Caldwell, editor in chief of the school’s student newspaper, said to KXAN. “Its roots are inherently racist.”
Caden Sterns, a junior defensive back for the Longhorns and one of the players who tweeted out the list of requests last month, expressed happiness on social media Monday with Hartzell’s statement while asserting that he was looking forward to making “make more positive change on campus.”
Of the school song, Sterns wrote, “I’m understanding on people’s perspectives on what the song means to them and I get it both sides. I do think it’s important that those who partake are informed and educated of the roots of the song and how it came about.”
To another Twitter user who asked whether Sterns would continue to join with teammates and fans in renditions of “The Eyes of Texas,” he said: “I will not sing the song.”