UT Austin fight song under fire because of its racist roots

Race in America

AUSTIN, Texas (NewsNation Now) — All eyes and ears are on a postgame fight song at one of the largest college campuses in the nation. Hundreds of alumni at The University of Texas at Austin are threatening to rescind their large donations if the tradition falls silent.

The school has come under fire in recent months for its historic fight song because of its racist roots, many now calling on the song to be extinguished. The school said it’s here to stay.

From home games and graduation to alumni events, the tradition of singing the school’s spirit song ‘The Eyes of Texas’ dates back to 1903.

The song is sung to the tune of ‘I’ve Been Working On The Railroad’ and its title is a play on a phrase by Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee. In the school’s past, it was performed at minstrel shows by white students in blackface. Condemnation of the practice has now gained traction.

Origins of the song were brought to the forefront last summer, following the death of George Floyd. Amid civil unrest, student athletes called for its replacement. 

“My sophomore through my senior year, I knew the meaning of the song, and I never sung it after the game,” said Houston Texans defensive end Charles Omenihu.

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Omenihu is a former UT Longhorn. He is an advocate for eradicating the song and recalled how it made him feel on the field.

“Those things were just very gut-wrenching, very disturbing kind of things, and that’s what the university stands on,” he said.

Despite friction, the university’s president announced in July 2020 that the school would be keeping the song as a treasured tradition but would work to own its history and redefine what it stands for.

“Embracing the song’s meaning today should not stop us from seeing its complicated past and acknowledging the many ways that people see the song,” the school said in a statement.

This week, new emails surfaced, obtained by the Texas Tribune, which showed a wave of wealthy donors who threatened to stop donations if the university dropped the school song.

“UT needs rich donors who love ‘The Eyes of Texas’ more than they need one crop of irresponsible and uninformed students or faculty who won’t do what they are paid to do,” wrote retired administrative law Judge Steven Arnold in one email.

In another email, an anonymous sender said:

“My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics. This could very easily be rescinded if things don’t drastically change around here… has everyone become oblivious of who supports athletics??”

According to the Tribune, of the nearly 300 people who emailed the school last semester regarding the song, more than 70% demanded it be played. About 75 senders threatened to put an end to their financial support.

“Those emails were racist. A lot of those emails were racist,” said UT Austin graduate Jade Fabello.

NewsNation spoke with Fabello, a freelance writer who graduated from UT Austin last May. He said the song keeps him from having alumni pride, and he leans toward discontinuing it. His message for

“I think you can kind of pick the donors or pick ensuring that your Black students feel somewhat protected by the institution or cared for,” he said of the school and the wealthy donors.

Fabello told NewsNation that he and the Black community had known about the song’s past long before it came to the surface last year. Also expected to be released this month is the full chronology of the song. In the Fall, the university’s president announced creating a committee tasked with documenting its history and recommending ways to educate the community.

Those findings are expected to reignite the conversation on campus. Currently, there are more than half a million UT Austin alumni.

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