UT Austin's School Song Has Been Sung For Over A Century. But It's Rooted In Racism.

Jun 18, 2020

"The Eyes of Texas" may be closing for good.

The school song of the University of Texas is under scrutiny – and it didn't just begin last week with social media posts by football players or a petition signed by thousands in the community. There have been decades of discomfort over the song, so a discussion about it is long overdue.

In the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd, Mike Ramos, Breonna Taylor and others, Texas Football Coach Tom Herman has publicly supported players trying to use their status for social justice. 

“Now is a great opportunity for young people in our society to express themselves – and not just express themselves for the sake of expressing themselves ­– but express themselves and take action that leads to positive change,” Herman said.

That attitude is a big shift. Often the messaging from student athletes is controlled, with much power in the hands of university athletic departments. Empowering student athletes to have a public say in what goes on around them is, well, different.  

“I’ve been blessed ... to play at a university that has a huge platform," Caden Sterns, junior defensive back for the Longhorns, said. "And to not use it to help society out and help my community, then that would be a failure to me personally, because it’s bigger than football.”

As for the folks who say, “Shut up and play?”

“We’re more than just people out there just banging our heads and hitting people,” he said. "We’ve got people who have beliefs and perspectives, too. So, as athletes I think we should use that to the fullest ability.”

Changes Demanded On Campus

On social media last week, players posted changes they’d like to see under the school’s slogan, “What starts here changes the world.”

There are some physical changes, like changing names on buildings named for slaveholders or known segregationists. Players called for more diversity in statues and campus sculptures and more diverse artists commissioned to create them. Players are seeking changes within the athletic department, like donating half a percent from football earnings to Black organizations like Black Lives Matter. 

The post was put out on behalf of all student athletes, not just football players. Women’s basketball player Celeste Taylor says now is an important time to listen to each other.

“I think the world today just needs to have an understanding and just be more compassionate and open hearted towards other people and just understand that it’s not equal, it’s not the same,” Taylor said in an interview on UT’s athletics website.

At the end of the list was a change that is a little more emotional: It asks that "The Eyes of Texas" be replaced with a song with no racial undertones. It says if the song is not removed, the rule requiring players to stand and sing it must go away.

Blind To The Past

The phrase “The Eyes of Texas” comes from former UT President William Prather. He liked the way Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would end his speeches with “the eyes of the South are upon you,” and began replacing South with Texas.

A student organization called the Texas Cowboys would put on minstrel shows – in blackface – singing parodies of Prather's speeches to the tune of a then-popular folk song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

"I see the song as something that people do without thinking."

The school song was born. That history is not taught at new student orientation; it is not featured in its traditions website. 

“I see the song as something that people do without thinking,” said Edmund Gordon, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at UT. He put together the school's racial geography tour, a closer look at the architecture on campus and how the placement of buildings and statues were influenced by race and gender.

“Now that also means that I see us – at the University of Texas and in society in general – engaged in a whole bunch of behaviors that come from a past that we’re not linking those behaviors to,” he said.

Gordon said whether people know its origins or not, its roots are undeniable.

“It also has other kinds of important meanings to people, and I don’t think it can be reduced to any one thing, but it does have racial undertones,” he said.

The Weight Of Music

Peel back further and those tones start to make a chord.

The melody for the school song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” is seen today mostly as a folk song for kids. That’s not where it started. 

It was cribbed from Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant.” Words were written to the melody and the song gained popularity in minstrel shows in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” has been rewritten through the years, but the original lyrics published in the 1890s – most often sung by white men in blackface – might shock today's parents, who have included the folk singer Raffi's version on their kids’ playlist.

“I couldn’t even begin to fathom how many times I played that song or have conducted that song,” former UT student John Fleming said. "It’s definitely in the thousands.”

"To me, a school song is very much like an organization's mission statement."

Fleming studied music and, in 1990, became the first African American to lead the Longhorn Band as drum major. Since graduating, he's been active in the Alumni Band. So, he knows, “The Eyes of Texas,” present and past. He says school songs are tricky. 

"To me, a school song is very much like an organization's mission statement,” he said. "And the song, I think musically, the way that it’s been arranged, and the way that it’s been performed carries a lot of weight.”

Fleming said he sees the conflict for the school, students and alumni: Are the musical weight, the sense memories and the meanings associated with it today enough to counter the pull of its origins? It’s a question he’s been wrestling with since taking the field with the band.

“I’m a Black man standing in a white uniform, conducting the song, and leading all of these people in a song that I’m not sure that – I’m pretty sure that I’m not happy with knowing what I know about it,” he said. "And no one’s talking about it.”

But now folks are.

The student calls for action have spurred some action by UT. Interim President Jay Hartzell said Monday that he is “scheduling conversations with students, including leaders of Black student organizations and student athletes, as well as other community members to hear their concerns and ideas directly.”

In their statement, the athletes say they will not participate in recruiting players or help with fundraisers until the university and athletic department makes the campus more comfortable and inclusive for its Black community.

Got a tip? Email Jimmy Maas at jmaas@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.