How UT’s denial to remove The Eyes of Texas alma mater impacted Black students

Skye Seipp

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the March 12 issue of The Daily Texan.

 

“The Eyes of Texas” took a national spotlight this year as students called for its removal due to its racist origins. But the song’s history is something Earl Potts Jr. said he has grappled with since his freshman orientation in 2018.

 

“Before I even became a freshman on campus, I’m already feeling alienated by a school song that they’re forcing us all to sing and me knowing the recent history,” said Potts, a computer science and African and African diaspora studies junior.

 

The song debuted at a minstrel show, which typically featured white performers in blackface, on May 12, 1903, according to a report released Tuesday by The Eyes of Texas History Committee, which was appointed by the University to study and document the song’s history in October 2020.

 

In summer 2020, UT President Jay Hartzell said the song would remain the alma mater. However, many Black students said they continue to feel excluded even after the report said there was “no racist intent.”

 

Potts said even if the song is “not overtly racist,” as the report said, it still makes thousands of students uncomfortable.

 

“It’s (not) the University’s place to reclaim something that they’re the offenders (of), not the offended,” Potts said.

 

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and the police killings of George Floyd, Michael Ramos, Breonna Taylor and more, students and athletes at UT demanded the song be removed due to its racist history. The Longhorn Band was unable to play the song in the fall due to a lack of band members willing to participate following the protests. By September, a student-led movement called Rewrite Not Reclaim demanded the University to drop the alma mater.

 

Connor O’Neill, who does public relations for the movement, said despite Hartzell’s decision, the group will continue advocating for the song’s removal and plans to get new students involved to keep the University accountable.

 

O’Neill, a Plan II and government senior who is white, said the report felt like it was undermining the work of students to remove the song by saying there was “no racist intent,” even though it debuted at a minstrel show.

 

At the beginning of March, The Texas Tribune released emails to the University from donors who threatened to pull funding if the song was removed. Some of the emails included racist rhetoric and said that because Black students make up 4% of the student population, their opinions should not be heavily considered. In addition, athletic officials told football players they had to stay on the field during the song to appease donors, according to The Texas Tribune.

 

Potts said seeing the “overt racism” in some of the emails affected him because they were sent by “real people.” He said he will have to wonder who thinks he should “live in another state” if he’s ever at alumni networking events.

 

The report documenting the history and use of the song listed 40 recommendations for the University to best communicate the history of the song and the next steps moving forward. Richard Reddick, chair of the history committee, said the report’s release is just the start of the conversation.

 

Reddick, associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach for the College of Education, said the conclusion of “no racist intent” drawn by the committee was “their best understanding” of the primary source documents used to understand what the author was trying to accomplish in writing the song.

 

He said the report is simply information and is not telling people how they should feel about the song. The recommendations are the next steps to address students who feel alienated, he said.

 

“I want every student to feel welcomed and included,” Reddick said. “We can start that process by looking at those 40 recommendations as … launching points … The history really helps to contextualize and clarify conceptions.”

 

Psychology sophomore Jarielle Afolabi-Craige said the song is still offensive because of its connections to minstrel shows and being set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which was a popular minstrel show tune.

 

She said she does not expect the song to change because the University does not want to lose donor money.

 

“(The song) doesn’t have any place on campus, and if Hartzell says this is a diverse and inclusive campus and he wanted students of color to feel comfortable … he wouldn’t keep the song,” Afolabi-Craige said.