“Eyes of Texas” report finds the song was written in a “racist setting,” but is not “overtly racist”

Samantha Greyson and Skye Seipp

Lauren Girgis, Hannah Williford and Brooke Ontiveros contributed to reporting.

 

“The Eyes of Texas” was written in a “racist setting,” but the song was intended to “parody” the current UT president at the time, according to a 59-page report released Tuesday by “The Eyes of Texas” History Committee.

 

“The research leads us to surmise that intent of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist,” the report said. “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.”

 

The report featured a history of the song since its creation and how it has been used since.

 

UT President Jay Hartzell created the committee last semester due to calls from students to remove the song in wake of the police killing of George Floyd and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Hartzell said on July 13 the song would remain.

 

The 25-person committee was headed by Richard Reddick, associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach for the College of Education. The committee was tasked with four charges: to document the origin of the song and the writers’ intent; the history of UT’s use of the song; the history of the UT community and broader use of the song and recommendations on how to “memorialize” the song’s history.

 

“The thing that makes it possible to move forward is the fact that the song is constantly going under interpretation, and revision and revisiting by new constituents, new students, new issues, new concerns,” Reddick said during a press conference. “You can still look at the information and say, this doesn’t sit well with me, and we respect that.”

 

 

The report said there was no evidence the phrase “the eyes of Texas are upon you” came from Robert E. Lee. According to the UT System website, it was initially believed Lee ended his speeches at Washington and Lee University with the phrase “the eyes of the South are upon you” and this is where later UT President William Prather coined the phrase, since Prather attended Washington and Lee University when Lee was its president.

 

“That’s how a lot of times these things happen, there’s a secondary source that sounds compelling, but as one of my colleagues on the committee said, ‘historians are professional skeptics,’” Reddick said in a press conference. “That might have happened, but we’re not sure.”

 

However, the report said the phrase came from another Confederate general in a conversation with Lee. Prather was quoted in a speech on Nov. 15, 1900, to incoming medical students telling the story and then using it to say “the eyes of Texas are upon you.”

 

Lyrics for the song were written by John Lang Sinclair at the urging of Lewis Johnson, and the phrase was meant to parody Prather’s saying, the report said.

 

“The committee found no evidence the lyrics were intended to show nostalgia for slavery and instead, found facts that supported the song’s message of accountability,” the report said, referring to the idea that students should conduct themselves respectfully, because their actions directly affected how legislators and media viewed the University.

 

The song debuted at a minstrel show on May 12, 1903, for a track fundraiser. The report said the committee is “uncomfortable with this aspect of its history.” However, Reddick said they found no photographic evidence of the song being used with blackface. Minstrel shows were a form of racist entertainment popularized in the early 19th century, the shows commonly used blackface in racist skits and performances.

 

“The Eyes of Texas” is set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which also has a contested past with connection to minstrel shows. The report said the tune’s origin is “unclear.”

 

“It’s undeniable that the environment, the circumstances, Jim Crow-postbellum Texas … were inherently racist,” Reddick said. “The absence of Black people and people of color generally in the centrality of campus life was problematic. That’s a fact.”

 

The committee made 40 recommendations, including for the University to reinforce that the song will remain and “address the negativity of the song up front and then go about educating people on the historical context.” Other suggestions included educating the UT community about the song’s history through various means, including a video on the song’s history before sports games, allowing students to choose whether they will sing it and assigning the actions of the committee to someone with oversight and financial authority.

 

“One of the unanimous agreements lies in our committee’s deep belief in the University and our continued hope for demonstrated progress on social issues that affect our country, University and world,” the report said. “We love this University and hope that our work is a catalyst for important change and yet another proof point of what starts here changes the world. The eyes of our University, our state and our country are watching our collective actions.”

 

University officials told football players they had to stay on the field during the song to appease donors, according to the Texas Tribune.

 

Hartzell said in an email on the report’s release UT’s next step is to begin teaching the history of the song. Hartzell highlighted three of the 40 recommendations in his email, including building mentoring services with alumni, creating historical exhibits and teaching modules and creating a scholarship for a more diverse Longhorn Band through Texas Exes. Currently, the Longhorn Band has 12 Black members out of approximately 400 total members, according to previous Texan reporting.

 

Reddick said he met with student-athletes Monday morning to discuss the report and its findings. Most University sports teams were present at the meeting, which was hosted at the Frank C. Erwin Center, Reddick said.

 

“The conversation was about what’s next,” Reddick said. “The reality is, the community now has a chance to be engaged in those ideas … it’s about building community with respect, with understanding that people have different understandings and different life experiences that may shape how they feel about the song, but being involved in that conversation, to me, is critical.”

 

Hartzell said the history of the song is complicated, much like the history of the University, Texas and the United States. He said he chose to keep the song because embracing history means embracing both “tragedy and triumphs.”

 

“Another aspect of my decision leans on the concept of free speech,” Hartzell said. “For this reason, let me be very clear: As always, no one is or will be required to sing ‘The Eyes of Texas.’”

 

In a press conference, Reddick said Hartzell’s statement also applied to student-athletes.