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‘Eyes of Texas’ report details song’s complicated history but determines ‘no racist intent’

Final report determines song was debuted at 1903 minstrel show by singers in blackface but song was meant to poke fun at UT president

The University of Texas released a comprehensive 59-page report Tuesday detailing the complex history of “The Eyes of Texas” school song, determining that while it debuted at a 1903 minstrel show, there was “no racist intent.”

A 24-person committee was tasked with researching the song’s history and cataloging anything remotely possible about the song’s origins and historical use. The school believes the report uncovers important facts and historical context never known before.

In an executive summary, the committee determined, “These historical facts add complexity and richness to the story of a song that debuted in a racist setting, exceedingly common for the time, but, as the preponderance of research showed, had no racist intent."

More:Bohls: Two former Longhorns look at controversial 'Eyes' with their perspective

Social justice issues brought to light last summer triggered an ideological controversy over the century-old song sung at football games, graduations, weddings and funerals. UT President Jay Hartzell had already announced “The Eyes” would remain in place despite criticism from all sides, both on campus and off.

Richard Reddick, associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach in UT’s College of Education who served as the committee's chairman, said this report “does not have a vindication or a smoking gun.”

UT officials are hopeful that anyone with a passing interest in the topic will read the report and make their own determinations. An early version of the report given to some media outlets was 95 pages; the final report issued publicly was 59. 

In an interview with Longhorn Network, Hartzell said, “My hope is that we’ll get to a point where people feel good about staying on the field and honoring each other. But nobody’s going to be required or mandated to stay on the field, or sing the song.”

That message undercuts what’s been coming from UT athletics, as athletic director Chris Del Conte asked each team to stand together on the field during “The Eyes.” Football coach Steve Sarkisian also said in January that "we’re going to sing that song, proudly.”

The report was presented to all UT athletes on Tuesday, two sources said, and they were allowed to ask questions. The hope is that athletes go back and talk as individual teams about how they want to proceed. 

“Courageously confronting your history, you don't get to say, ‘What starts here changes the world,’ and just mean it for things that are comfortable,” Reddick said in an interview. "It has to be everything.”

Opinion:On ‘The Eyes of Texas,’ now that we know better, we must do better

More:'Eyes of Texas' divides athletes, students and alumni at UT

The final report states the song, which debuted at a minstrel show on May 12, 1903, was “almost certainly” performed by white singers in blackface. While not written as a song meant to disparage any race, the report states, “we are pained and uncomfortable with this aspect of its history.”

Throughout the years, having this song on a once-segregated campus “has, understandably, blurred the lines between intent and historical and contemporary impact,” the report states.

“The research leads us to surmise that intent of the ‘Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist,” the committee determined. “However, it is similarly clear that the cultural milieu that produced it was.”

Texas officials included the actual program from the "Varsity Minstrels" show from 1903 in the final committee report examining 
"The Eyes of Texas" history.

No connection to Robert E. Lee

The committee found no direct link to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee regarding the phrase “the Eyes of the South are upon you,” which has long been thought as the song’s lyrical inspiration. Researchers at Washington and Lee University could find no evidence that Lee said that as the school’s president in the 1860s, the report states.

The anecdote was traced back to a memoir published in 1938. Retired UT engineering Dean Thomas Taylor wrote about how UT President William Prather had given a speech to incoming medical students on Nov. 15, 1900. Taylor tied Lee’s words to Prather, but there is no supporting verification in transcripts from Prather’s speech.

“Absence of evidence, of course, is not proof of absence,” UT’s report states. “But if the phrase was as common with Lee as Taylor asserted, one would expect some supporting evidence.”

The lyrics were penned by UT student John Lang Sinclair, a yearbook editor and UT band member, at the urging of Lewis Johnson, a director of the University Chorus. Johnson believed that UT needed a school song that “students could sing as proudly as the students of Harvard or Princeton sang their school songs,” the report states.

Sinclair drew his inspiration from Prather, who said often “the Eyes of Texas are upon you.” The tune borrows a melody from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” a noted slave work song. The report says it was “a popular melody that many UT students already knew.”

According to Johnson’s extensive family records, the lyrics “Do not think you can escape them/At night or early in the morn” had specific purpose, the report states.

Some have come to believe those lyrics are a reference for slave owners to watch Black people. Johnson’s family records state that those words were “a direct statement to the student body (overwhelmingly white at that time) that the elders of the state and the previous generations are watching them and expecting them to do great things with their education.”

The Daily Texan, the school newspaper, printed an article on Nov. 30, 1922, with the headline “'Eyes of Texas’ Considered Joke When Introduced.” The entire song was meant to poke fun at Prather. It was well received at the time and even sung at Prather’s funeral in 1905. 

Despite that, UT’s report does not shy away from the fact it was performed at a minstrel show, which doubled as a fundraiser for the UT track team. Over the years, the question has been raised whether the performers wore blackface. 

“The answer is: Most probably, yes,” the report states. “The surviving contemporary accounts don’t allow a direct, definitive answer. Neither the printed program for the show nor reviews afterward identified cast members as specifically wearing blackface or not. No photographs from the show have been found.”

More: A history of ‘The Eyes of Texas’: Song performed at minstrel shows is now part of every-day UT life

The Texas soccer team stands with their fans as they sing "The Eyes of Texas" during a 2018 match at Myers Stadium. Playing the school song is a common sight at UT sports events.

‘The Eyes’ becomes legend

As time passed, “The Eyes of Texas” became engrained in the school’s DNA. The report goes into considerable detail how the song was used during times of protest and peace, once performed by Elvis Presley and played on the surface of the moon.

Others have tried to have the song changed or done away with in the past. All those efforts were rebuffed.

The report states that George Floyd’s death on May 25 and “the ensuing protests around the country and world” gave the issue new attention. UT athletes, including many in the football program, prepared a list of demands, the report states, that addressed UT’s racial history.

More:UT making sweeping changes in response to athlete requests but keeps ‘The Eyes of Texas’

Texas basketball fans hold up their "Hook 'Em Horns" signs during the playing of "The Eyes of Texas" following the Longhorns' 78-76 win over Xavier in their second round of the 2019 National Invitation Tournament game at the Erwin Center.

Campus officials agreed to change the name of several buildings, while the athletic department made a series of other changes. UT renamed the football field in honor of its two Heisman Trophy winners Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams. The Longhorns also erected a statue to honor Julius Whittier, UT’s first Black football letterman.

The players wanted “The Eyes” removed, though. Members of the Longhorn Band got involved, and some opted not to play the song. The band was effectively suspended for the football season when no agreement could be reached.

The Longhorns jogged off the field the first two home games and ignored the song playing over the loudspeakers. It was thought in September this would be the new normal. 

Then against Oklahoma, UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger was one of the few players that stayed on the field with his "Horns Up" while the song played and fans sang. Photos of Ehlinger appearing to stand alone in the Cotton Bowl ricocheted around the UT universe, sparking a massive backlash and emails directed at Hartzell. 

The locker room was divided, as some Black players demanded the song go instantly. Former coach Tom Herman started his Monday press conference on Oct. 12 by reading a prepared statement about the song's importance while balancing his players' requests.

After Texas played Baylor on Oct, 24, the players voted to stay on the field, as requested by UT athletic director Chris Del Conte. Many of them just stood out there, hands on hips, while some did the "Hook 'em Horns" hand gesture. A few players took a knee. 

Hartzell said he would meet with the football team Tuesday morning as they were the first major group to initiate the conversation. 

Sarkisian left no room for interpretation at his introductory press conference in January. “I know this much, ‘The Eyes of Texas' is our school song,” he said on Jan. 12. “We’re going to sing that song. We’re going to sing that song, proudly.”

No UT athlete, like other students, will be forced to sing “The Eyes” after games. Athletes have been asked to stay on the field during the traditional post-game singing as a way to show team unity. 

The school plans on teaching future students about the song’s history. 

Still, for some, the song may be a deal-breaker. Those who believe the song is racist will likely continue to feel that way and vice versa. But Hartzell said that “my vision” this fall is to have 100,000 fans packed into Royal-Memorial Stadium as the Longhorn Band plays "The Eyes" before and after the season opener.

“I really hope that's not the way people think of this, as a binary decision about being involved in (the) university or don't, based on belief about a song,” Hartzell said in an interview. “I think it's incumbent upon us as university leaders to do the best we can to build a culture where you and I can disagree over the song — whether we want to sing it, whether we want to put our Horns up, whether we want to go to a football game, whether we want to listen to the band. We can disagree with all that, but we’re both still Longhorns.”

“That’s a tough cultural thing I think to get right,” he said. “But I think that’s the goal. And this report is just a tool to try to get closer to that place, rather than a tool to try to let people make a choice whether they’re in or they're out.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.