Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
A report released Tuesday by a University of Texas at Austin committee found that the controversial alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas” debuted at a minstrel show where white students likely wore blackface.
The report said that William Prather, the university president who coined the phrase at the turn of the 20th century, said he took it from stories he heard and read about Confederate leaders who used a similar phrase to urge troops on during the Civil War. Read the report here.
But the 24-member committee could not find primary documents that specifically tied the phrase to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, despite it long being believed that Lee was part of the song’s origin story.
The committee concluded the intent of the song was “not overtly racist.”
“However, it is similarly clear that the cultural milieu that produced it was,” the report stated. “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. This complicates its understanding and explains how different people experienced the song in vastly different ways.”
Members of the committee said in the report the song was intended to parody Prather, who often used the phrase, but also support his call to inspire the student body.
“There is not absolution nor is there vindication,” said professor Richard Reddick, who chaired the committee, in an interview with reporters on Tuesday. “This is a complicated story. You can’t really parse out this is clean and clear. We do know and feel comfortable saying the intent was to parody Prather.”
He said the university community must not shy away from further tough conversations as it relates to the song and systematic racism on campus.
“It’s important that we take the time to engage deeply with each other across generations to really understand — ‘how has my personal experience, my personal journey through life oriented me to think about the song, what it represents and it symbolizes?'” he said.
In recent months, the song has divided the UT-Austin. Over the summer, students protested and petitioned the university to rid the campus of the song, which has ties to minstrel shows. Officials said the song would stay, but announced a 24-member committee that would look into the song’s history.
Last week, The Texas Tribune reported that hundreds of alumni and donors wrote UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell over the summer and fall demanding he keep the song. At least 75 donors threatened to pull their donations, and a handful of alumni used racist language toward students who were protesting the song.
The Tribune also reported that two football players said athletic officials told them they had to stay on the field for the song after football games, because donors and fans were upset about their protests.
In July, UT-Austin announced new initiatives and renaming of buildings after student athletes publicly said they would stop showing up at donor events unless the university leaders took action toward racial equality.
While the report provides a detailed history of the song’s use on and off campus, some students say the report did nothing to alleviate their discomfort with the song’s origin.
Zion James, a UT sophomore who serves as an officer for UT organizations including the Black Student Alliance and the African American Culture Committee, said the report does not erase the fact that UT students performed the song at minstrel shows.
“You can acknowledge racism, but dismantling it is what makes you not racist,” James said. “You can call yourself out, you can call your institutions out. But if you’re not dismantling the systems and the institutions and the parts of it that are racist, then you’re just healing a racist narrative.”
UT student organizations continued to sing “The Eyes” at the end of minstrel shows performed with blackface, which were discontinued in 1965, according to the report.
He said moving forward, he and many of his peers will continue to advocate for the university to replace the alma mater.
“We’re in a time where debating, talking about it and making committees are not always the answer, especially when we’ve been trying to dismantle this for years,” James said. “Don’t be surprised when some people in our community take it in a physical way to where we’re marching or demonstrating.”
While the report didn’t connect the “eyes of Texas” to Lee with primary documents, it noted that Lee used a similar phrase in an order to troops in 1861, stating “The eyes of the country are upon you,” referring to the Confederacy. But the report notes the phrase “eyes of” was used previously in places such as the Bible and by George Washington.
“There is a connection to Lee through the story that Prather tells,” Reddick said. “But it’s not something that Lee said directly. And that may matter to some people they may not, but it’s important to get the clarity there.
Similarly, while the report said there are no photographs or written reviews of the minstrel show where the song debuted that confirm students wore blackface, it says it’s likely given the circumstances of the time. It also cited a Daily Texan article from 1931 where John Lang Sinclair, the author of the song, admits he likely wore blackface during the performance.
“The fact is that it was literally debuted [the song] at a minstrel show of people with blackface,” said PJ Chukwurah, a junior at UT. “It was first used in a show that mocked Black people. And I understand people bond over it and whatnot, but at the end of the day, you just can’t change the meaning of it.”
Reddick said the university’s history with blackface must be confronted, not ignored. He also acknowledged the competing pieces of information in the report.
“People are going to make comments and jump into the fray and look at one line and say, ‘it says this,'” he said later in the call. “And my point is probably two lines later, there’s something that’s going to be challenging that point or disturbing that narrative. This is the story of the United States, the story of Texas. So a lot of times, there’s one step forward is one step back. And that’s really the story here.”
Connor O’Neill, co-director of the Longhorn Athletic Agency within UT student government, said he saw those as contradictions, which raised questions for him about the committee’s conclusions.
“If you can’t say for sure then can you draw the conclusion at the end,” he wondered. “Do we really have a common set of facts?”
Still, he was impressed with the depth of the report and hopes this is a starting point for the university.
“It’s not just about ‘The Eyes,’ it’s about racial bias within systems, within the institution,” he said. “It’s more than about the song and I know this is just a starting point but there’s so much more that needs to be discussed and hopefully that comes to fruition.”
Chukwurah said the report felt like a justification from the university for keeping “The Eyes.”
“I am disappointed, which is what I feel on a daily basis, it feels like,” Chukwurah said. “Time and time again, we are constantly shown that we’re really not a priority to UT. And it’s fine, they run UT like a business, I’m a business major…I know how UT operates. They need their donors, they need their money. But I feel like because of that, a lot of students feel like UT doesn’t really care about them.”
The committee provided a long list of recommendations for how the university could move forward and recognize the history of the song, including allowing uncomfortable students to choose whether or not they sing the song, developing a course on the song’s history open to students, staff and faculty, and teaching the song’s history at new student orientation.
Most of the recommendations focus on educating the UT community on the role the song has played over the past century, through increased access to materials online and presentations during sporting events and alumni meetings.
“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,” the report says. “The eyes of our university, our state and our country are watching our collective actions.”
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.