Last summer, after nationwide protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a group of University of Texas at Austin athletes posted an open letter on social media. They vowed not to participate in recruiting or fundraising events until the university had done more to reckon with its racist history. The school agreed to several of their requests, including changing the names of multiple buildings on campus, erecting a statue at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium of the first Black football letterman, and renaming the football field in honor of former running backs Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.
The final item in the athletes’ letter, however, proved particularly controversial. Writing about the school’s alma mater, the athletes had pressed for “the replacement of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ with a song without racial undertones.” Many have objected to its debut at a turn-of-the-twentieth-century minstrel show and the legend that the song’s title and refrain had roots in a favored phrase of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
“The Eyes of Texas,” though, wasn’t going anywhere. The song has been an integral part of the lives of UT alumni for generations. It is performed at weddings, funerals, and birthday parties, and, of course, by as many as 100,000 fans at Longhorn football games. Astronaut Alan Bean famously had the lyrics printed on a piece of silk so that he could take them on his 1969 trip to the moon.
In July, UT president Jay Hartzell, who began his tenure as interim president in April 2020 and received the job officially last September, wrote in an email, “‘The Eyes of Texas’ should not only unite us, but hold all of us accountable to our institution’s core values. But we first must own the history.” Over the following months, the song would continue to be performed at football games, the players would be asked to stand for it, and the controversy would only escalate.
In November, Hartzell announced a 24-person committee tasked with examining the history of “The Eyes.” The committee includes former athletes, current students, historians, and alumni, and is chaired by Richard Reddick, who is the associate dean for equity, community engagement, and outreach in the UT College of Education.
On Tuesday morning, the university will release the work of “The Eyes of Texas” commission. The report will be roughly fifty pages long and will feature videos and extensive footnotes. Texas Monthly has learned of the report’s major findings. Most notably: the panel failed to uncover any “racist intent” in the lyrics, nor could it find any historical connection between the lyrics and anything said or written by Lee, as had previously been believed (though it did find connections to a different Confederate general).
The song’s lyrics were written in 1902 by then-student John L. Sinclair. The most controversial phrase—“The eyes of Texas are upon you”—was inspired by William Prather, who served as UT’s president from 1900 until his death in 1905. It has long been reported that Prather, who graduated from Washington and Lee University, borrowed the phrase from his college president, Robert E. Lee, who had landed at the school after the Civil War. (As of Sunday afternoon, the University of Texas’s online biography of Prather still says that Lee reportedly often told students, “Young men, the eyes of the South are upon you.”)
But when the committee members studied Washington and Lee’s collection of Lee’s orations and writings, they could not find any primary source showing Lee had ever used the phrase. The earliest reference to Lee using the phrase came in a 1938 memoir written by T.U. Taylor, the first dean of the College of Engineering at UT, 35 years after the song’s debut. (The commission could find no sourcing for the account in Taylor’s memoir.) Instead, the report suggests that Prather was inspired by Confederate brigadier general John Gregg of Texas, who reportedly once told his soldiers, “The eyes of General Lee are upon you!”
The report adds that similar phrases predated the Civil War, including uses from the book of Job (“For His eyes are on the ways of a man”), George Washington (“The eyes of all our countrymen are now upon us”), and William Henry Harrison in the War of 1812 (“The eyes of our country are upon you”).
The song, which is played to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” was performed publicly for the first time in 1903, at a student-organized minstrel show at the Hancock Opera House, in Austin. President Prather was in attendance that night, and it was sung by white men who were most likely in blackface. According to the commission, that the song was performed at a minstrel show doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written with racist intent. The study explains that at the turn of the twentieth century, minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment among white audiences. The report contends that the song’s initial performance likely followed musicians’ singing and playing of several other, more racially charged songs and skits, and so performers would have already been in blackface by the time they sung “The Eyes.” Additionally, it notes that the lyricist, Sinclair, did not write in Black dialect, a common form of stereotyping in that era.
Whether these findings will embolden or assuage critics remains to be seen. The report will be released in the wake of growing controversy. Last week, the Texas Tribune published emails to the university from upset donors calling for the song to stay. The spectrum of reactions the Tribune reported ranged from a donor who suggested that the university encourage Black students to “select an alternate school….NOW!” to a current freshman who said, “If something offends a certain demographic of people, and they’ve been outspoken about it, and they have every right to be offended by it, I think we should be listening to them.”
The university denies that these emails influenced the decision to keep the song and noted that many of the published emails arrived after the university announced its decision to keep the song in July.
In a university-wide email sent on Friday, Hartzell wrote of wanting to make UT a pioneer of a “new model for hard conversations.” He suggested that “The Eyes of Texas” report is a first step in that process.
“The conversation on social media suggests we can’t solve problems together,” wrote Hartzell. “But when we gather face to face, we naturally gravitate toward humility, empathy and problem solving.”
According to some current athletes, they’ve been trying to have that conversation for months. “It’s not that the athletes would be winning by getting the song removed and boosters would be losing,” one Longhorn football player told Texas Monthly. “It’s about saying, ‘Is this morally right?’”
This article has been amended to reflect the correct length of the report.