Longhorns Troubled by School Song's Past

Some refuse to sing a campus song that was first performed in blackface.

March 24, 2009, 1:55 PM

AUSTIN, Texas, March 25, 2009 -- The boisterous clatter of Darrell K Royal - Texas Memorial stadium on the campus of the University of Texas suddenly calms in response to the electricity in the air. No one knows where it starts, but the chorus of school spirit and pride begins to sound, eventually rising to a cacophony of noise.

As the first notes from the Longhorn band resonate throughout the crowd, nearly 100,000 voices join in. Hands rise into the air with the two outside fingers pointing toward the sky as the much-loved alma mater begins.

"The Eyes of Texas" epitomizes much of what it means to be a Longhorn at the University of Texas.

Sung to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," the iconic alma mater, however, seems to rub some Longhorns the wrong way.

T.J. Finley, who graduated from UT with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology in the spring, stopped singing UT's iconic alma mater completely after being told that the song was first performed by students wearing blackface makeup in a turn-of-the-century minstrel show.

"At first, I was just so shocked that something like this could still exist," said Finley, a graduate student at the Duke University School of Law.

The original manuscript of "The Eyes of Texas" is displayed in the lobby of the Texas Exes Alumni Center. The second stanza is traditionally sung at the opening and closing of all major UT sporting events:

The eyes of Texas are upon you,

All the live long day.

The eyes of Texas are upon you,

You cannot get away.

Do not think you can escape them

At night or early in the morn

The eyes of Texas are upon you

Till Gabriel blows his horn.

Micheondra Williams, a College of Liberal Arts sociology major, learned about the alma mater's history from a friend.

"I have to admit that I was a little bit shocked to read about the song's history," she said. "But there aren't any words that put me down or degrade me, or make me feel negatively about myself or anyone else."

"I feel if we were to research other things we do, or participate in, we would find many things can be traced back to a time much different than today."

Penned in 1903 by John Sinclair, editor of the Cactus yearbook and a UT band member, "The Eyes of Texas" was written at the request of band member Lewis Johnson, who played tuba for the varsity band (now the Longhorn band) and directed the university chorus.

Because the university did not have a school song, Johnson wanted Sinclair's help in writing one that would represent the students and faculty. Johnson, also the program director of the Varsity Minstrel Show that raised funds for the track team, believed the event was the perfect venue for its debut.

Minstrel shows of the time consisted of comedic skits, dancing, music and variety acts, often performed by white participants covered in black costume makeup to portray plantation slaves. Black characters were often portrayed as ignorant, lustful and unsympathetic characters.

Better known as "blackface," the performances first came onto the stage in the late 1820 and became popular in the United States from 1841-1870.

The shows began to lose their popularity after the Civil War, when they were replaced by vaudeville performances, which provided a "cleaner" presentation of variety acts catering to the new middle class and urban lifestyles, according to the University of Virginia's Web site.

Originally, Sinclair wrote the song as a parody to UT president William L. Prather's signature closing statement at all public events. Before becoming president in 1899, Prather was a student at Washington College at Lexington (now Washington and Lee University) in Virginia. He was greatly enamored of its president, Gen. Robert E. Lee, who often told his students and faculty, "The eyes of the South are upon you," according to the Amarillo News-Globe in 1931.

Prather seems to have enjoyed the saying so much he incorporated it into his school addresses and began concluding each speech with: "Remember, the eyes of Texas are upon you."

"The Eyes of Texas" debuted May 12, 1903, at the Hancock Opera House on West Sixth Street. Performed by a quartet of blackface students, accompanied by Sinclair on the banjo, it was apparently an immediate hit with the audience.

Yet, J.R. "Jim" Cannon, one of the group's singers, must have had second thoughts. He was later quoted in the Denison Herald on Sept. 9, 1931, saying, "It was all a joke. We did not know what we were starting."

A variety act gone awry, "The Eyes of Texas" has had a lasting impression on university students of all races. In the fall of 2008, blacks made up 4.4 percent of the entire UT student population, with Asian Americans accounting for 15.1 percent and Hispanics 15.9 percent of UT's 49,984 students.

Today, the Division for Diversity and Community Engagement Office on campus pledges on its Web site to improve diversity in teaching, research and campus services.

John Fleming, the Longhorn band's first (and still only) black drum major from 1990-'92, works at the campus Center for African and African-American Studies.

Fleming said he understands why students like Finley boycott the song, but doesn't believe that is the best approach to effect change.

"Is it really the song they're boycotting, or are they boycotting the people and what they represented when it was performed at a minstrel show?" Fleming said. "I guess it really is a matter of perception … and I respect them for that."

Finley said he always respected the opinions of classmates who sang the alma mater.

"It doesn't bother me if someone doesn't agree," he said. "You can't force action on anyone. The most important thing to me is letting people know the truth."

Despite what some have called a lack of diversity on campus, others note that the alma mater brings individuals together in support of the university.

"You feel really united as a school," said Kiah Lewis, a current government and UTeach-liberal arts major in the College of Liberal Arts. "As if you're a part of a longstanding tradition each time you hear an audience sing the school song."

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