AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — First performed at a minstrel show in 1903 by white students in blackface, the University of Texas' school song "The Eyes of Texas" is for many alumni a beloved tradition. But a new report sparked by Black students questioning the song's origins recommends students not be required to sing it.
For decades, UT football players, accompanied by the school band, stood on the field after home games and sang the school song.
So it angered some alumni, fans and donors when, after an Oct. 10 loss to the University of Oklahoma, the whole football team except white quarterback Sam Ehlinger left the field as the band played the alma mater.
The walk-off came after months of debate on whether the university should drop the song, a debate that grew out of the racial justice protests that swept the country following George Floyd's death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
To address questions about the song's origins, the university formed the Eyes of Texas Historical Committee in the summer of 2020, as part of President Jay Hartzell's initiatives to promote diversity and increase the number of Black students at the university.
As of July, Black students made up just 5.1% of the university's student body, though many members of the men's basketball and football teams are Black.
While school officials had previously decided the song would remain the school's alma mater, the report released Monday by the 24-person committee made up of faculty, administrators and alumni and a few current students sought to address its roots and provide some historical context.
"This report is not a cudgel to settle a debate. Instead, it is a call to accountability. While many school songs are hubristic statements of pride, 'The Eyes of Texas' is a song lyrically that reminds the singer that the best is expected, at all times, from this moment to eternity," the 58-page document states.
According to the report, conventional wisdom traced the song's name to a derivative of a catch phrase – "the eyes of the South are upon you" – of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
But the panel found "there was a very low likelihood that the line originated with Robert E. Lee," and instead the title was meant to convey a sense of accountability to UT students and faculty in the university's early days.
Critics also complained that some of the song's lyrics – "you cannot get away at night or early in the morn" – were nostalgic nods to slavery, and the melody was taken from the song "I've Been Working on the Railroad," itself a racist trope.
The panel determined, however, that the melody was used because it was easy to remember, familiar and popular with students in the early 1900s.
“The research leads us to surmise that intent of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ was not overtly racist. However, it is similarly clear that the cultural milieu that produced it was. 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,” the report states. “This complicates its understanding and explains how different people experienced the song in vastly different ways.”
Over the years, the song's popularity pushed it beyond UT's campus with schoolchildren regularly performing it at assemblies.
"In 1966, farm workers and clergy marched from the Rio Grande Valley to the Capitol in Austin singing 'The Eyes of Texas' along the way, again as a protest song about accountability," the report states.
It includes 40 recommendations for educating the student body and campus community about the alma mater, including airing a short video about the song's history at football games and allowing for a pause before or after the song is played "for personal and collective reflection."
The full history of the song is detailed by the school on a new website.
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