Questions from the Longhorn Community

As an academic project, The Eyes of Texas History Committee Report is intended to identify a common set of facts to increase understanding, as well as spur discussion and further investigation of the history and circumstances surrounding the origins of the UT alma mater, its usage in university events, how it was used by organizations, students, and alumni, as well as its usage beyond the university. These further discussions are welcomed and encouraged as we discuss and engage deeply with the University’s past, present, and future.

As with all forms of historical research, additional details and sources will doubtless be found by members of the community, and are essential to an honest reflection of the University. Scholarship is all about the pursuit of truth and the courage to follow it wherever the evidence leads. The Eyes of Texas History Committee stands by the integrity of the report, researched and written over a four month period with contributions from historians, researchers, scholars, students, and many members of the University community. The comprehensive, highly-inclusive committee process encouraged open, vigorous debate and discussion of the facts to search for and present the truth.

In the continuation of the conversation around the song, there have been conversations with hundreds and hundreds of individuals and groups. To ensure consistency of response, we want to share these questions and the fact-based answers that are found in the report or where we can provide additional scholarly clarification. The Eyes of Texas History Committee presents these frequently asked questions to clarify the report and its findings. The Committee urges all to read the report in its entirety, and apply critical analysis to this work, and use the same standard relating to any other accompanying scholarship.

What was the Eyes of Texas History Committee’s process and sources for the report?

From October 2020 until February 2021, a volunteer committee comprised of scholars, alumni, staff, and students researched and wrote the report. The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, though closed to the public, rapidly digitized archives and vertical files for the committee’s use, including files on The Eyes of Texas and John Lang Sinclair; the papers of W. J. Battle; official records from the University of Texas Archive, including the Office of the President and the UT System; and university-related  publications, including The Ranger, The Cactus, The Daily Texan and The Alcalde. The Austin History Center provided archives related to the 1903 minstrel performance, including copies of the Austin Statesman. A number of other sources were consulted, including newspapers and magazines across the state, peer reviewed historical articles, and university press history books. Teams of committee members, each with historian leads, worked on the research, analysis, and writing. The committee members had divergent views on and a wide range of experiences with the Eyes of Texas. They implemented a process rooted in scientific practice to bridge differing viewpoints in order to honestly evaluate and rigorously debate complex facts and historical information. While no report can be exhaustive and uncover all reputable sources, the report is comprehensive. We fully expect scholars and researchers to further contribute to our understanding of the university’s history.

Did President Prather paraphrase or quote Robert E. Lee as he created the phrase “the eyes of Texas are upon you?”

This is unlikely. The report states that the song’s title is derived from President Prather’s commonly uttered phrase “the eyes of Texas are upon you.” The origins of the phrase are explained in the section “Origins of the Phrase” on p. 11 of the Historical Committee’s report. The report further states that the commonly shared origin story — that the phrase came from Lee’s comment to the Washington College student body that “the eyes of the south are upon you” — is only found in T.U. Taylor’s account, which contradicts the story that Prather shared in December 1900, and is supported by a number of secondary sources.

Was "The Eyes of Texas" entirely written early in the morning of the May 12, 1903 minstrel show?

This is extremely unlikely, due to the committee’s analysis of several pieces of evidence:

  1. Lewis Johnson’s manuscript specifically explains that he received the original version of “The Eyes” (and he named it the original version) directly from John Sinclair. There was no mention of a minstrel show.
  2. Texan editor Horace Whaley was visited by John Sinclair to get Whaley’s reaction to the “Prexy parody” lyrics to be used at the show. There wouldn’t have been time for this to happen if the song was completed in the morning and still needed to be rehearsed.
  3. An Austin newspaper ad published May 11th – the day before the minstrel show – specifically mentioned that a song called “The Eyes of Texas are Upon You” was to be sung. The ad had to be ordered at least the day before, on May 10th.

Additionally, there is significant evidence that while debuting the song at the event because it was the one opportunity for students to poke fun at the president and they knew of his attendance, Johnson and Sinclair were intent on the song remaining after the event. The lyrics of the song that were sung at the May 12 event, page 31 of the report, where UT student Ed Nunnally corresponded with John Sinclair in order to obtain a copyright on “The Eyes,” Sinclair sent Nunnally additional lyrics he hadn’t shared before. They were meant to replace the second verse because what was sung at the 1903 show was “to be of too limited interest for general use.”

For though we may wander, here our hearts remain;
Texas bids us welcome, when we come again.
Still in kind remembrance we hold the days of yore,
And those to come we pledge anew to Texas, evermore.

In other words, while the original version of the song was revised for the show to poke some fun at the president, Sinclair was still thinking that this was to be a UT song in the long term, not a last-minute minstrel song intended for a minstrel show. 

Was “The Eyes of Texas” written as minstrelsy was fading, even though the first minstrel show took place at UT Austin in 1903?

The report includes an observation that “[t]he 1903 show in Austin occurred near the end of the minstrel era, as the genre was evolving further, into vaudeville.” This is in reference to the national context. The genre reached its highest popularity in mid- to late-nineteenth century America. “By the turn of the twentieth century,” writes Robert Toll,  “the popularity of the minstrel show was waning and black minstrelsy was generally restricted to a Southern and primarily rural base, including blacks” (284, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1974). Though minstrel shows had declined in popularity, they continued to be performed across the country well into the twentieth century and on the UT Austin campus into the mid-1960s, as the report discusses on page 43.