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University of Texas school song written to poke fun at president, not promote racism: UT report

Prompted by Ivy League envy

Contrary to claims that the name of the University of Texas fight song is taken from an apocryphal saying by Robert E. Lee, “The Eyes of Texas” has no connection to the Confederate general and former UT president.

That’s just one of the surprising findings about the supposedly racist song from the university’s History Committee report, released Tuesday, on its origins and use for more than a century. It was even sung “during times of protest and peace,” UT-focused news outlet HookEm reports.

The failure of the university to actively promote “The Eyes” – as made clear last fall when all football players but one left the field while the song was being played (below) – spurred several dozen wealthy alumni to threaten to stop their donations.

Also thought to refer to slaves and slave owners, the lyric “Do not think you can escape them/At night or early in the morn” is actually “a direct statement to the student body” that the state’s elders and previous generations “are watching them and expecting them to do great things with their education,” the report says.

It makes this conclusion based on the “extensive” family records of Lewis Johnson, director of the University Chorus, who was the impetus behind the song’s creation in 1903, though he didn’t write the lyrics. Johnson wanted the taxpayer-funded university to have a song that “students could sing as proudly as the students of Harvard or Princeton sang their school songs,” according to the report.

MORE: Wealthy UT donors threaten to withhold funds if song dropped

In fact, a Daily Texan headline two decades later said the song, written by yearbook editor John Lang Sinclair, was “Considered [a] Joke” about the university president, William Prather, when it was first introduced:

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.” …

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.

While “The Eyes” debuted at the “Varsity Minstrels” fundraiser for the track team in 1903, the most the report could say about its performance was that the singers were “almost certainly” white and “probably” wore blackface, given the “overwhelmingly white [student body] at that time.” No hard evidence, such as photographs or text documentation of the singers’ appearance, could be found.

“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,” the executive summary concludes.

Committee Chair Richard Reddick, associate dean for equity in the College of Education, told the Gannett-owned HookEm that the report “does not have a vindication or a smoking gun.”

While President Jay Hartzell has already said the song would remain at football games, he emphasized that no student – including athletes – would be required to sing it.

Read the UT report and HookEm report.

MORE: University of Texas keeps school song despite student demands

MORE: Gannett dumps ‘Mallard Fillmore’ for defending girls’ sports

IMAGE: GS Photography / Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.