The University of Texas will continue to examine “The Eyes of Texas” through a new committee tasked with examining the racist history behind the alma mater and issuing recommendations on how to reconcile that history with the role the song plays in campus culture today.
This summer, athletes and other students at the university called for the song to be replaced, amid a national conversation about race after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis.
In response, the university pledged to do more to support a more diverse campus community and reconsider symbols and names on campus — including renaming some campus buildings and erecting statues and monuments to honor Black alumni.
But university leaders decided to keep the “The Eyes of Texas,” pledging to “own, acknowledge and teach about all aspects of the origins” of the song while continuing to sing it at campus and sporting events.
The new campus committee is intended to do just that: chronicle the full history of the song and offer guidance on how to handle that history moving forward.
“I understand and appreciate the deep passion surrounding our alma mater, ‘The Eyes of Texas,’” UT President Jay Hartzell said in an email to the university community on Tuesday. “As we move forward and continue to perform and sing ‘The Eyes,’ it is critical that we understand the full history of the song, share that history broadly and provide context around its meanings, origins and roles during the past 120 years.”
The song, written in 1903, was inspired by a saying apparently often uttered by then-university President William Prather, adapted from an expression Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee used in speeches to students during his time as president of Washington and Lee University: “The eyes of the South are upon you.”
The song is set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” itself a song with racist origins, and was first performed at a minstrel show by white performers in blackface and aimed to poke fun at Prather. Today, the song is performed at every university sporting event.
Richard Reddick, associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach in the College of Education, will serve as chairman of the committee, which will share its findings with university officials in January.
Reddick said Hartzell approached him about leading the committee because he has participated in campus conversations about the song.
“My personal feelings are complex, which is one of the reasons I’m eager to engage with the committee and the larger community to work to a stronger understanding of the history of the song, and what it’s come to mean over the years,” Reddick said. “There have been concerns about the song for some time, and as an institution of higher education, we’re compelled to seek the truth, understand people’s perspectives, and converse with each other respectfully. Our student athletes and student leaders have been advancing this dialogue and I’m proud to contribute to that discussion.”
The committee will include diverse faculty, staff, students and alumni — including current and former athletes and members of the Longhorn Band. They will solicit feedback from UT historians and scholars as part of their work, according to Hartzell’s announcement.
Hartzell and Reddick will select committee members, with input from the Texas Exes, the university’s official alumni association.
“I think taking advantage of the expertise, experiences and insights of the many constituents that make up the UT community is absolutely the best path forward,” Reddick said. “We’re an institution that takes on challenging and thorny issues, and we thrive in this intellectual exchange.
“I know there is a lot to learn and a lot to listen to, and it’s an honor to engage with our community in this conversation.”