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University of Texas band won’t play its alma mater because it was once performed at minstrel shows

University of Texas Longhorns band
Getty Images via CNN
The University of Texas Longhorns band performs during a football game at McLane Stadium in 2019.

AUSTIN, Texas — Members of the University of Texas Longhorn band are refusing to play the university’s alma mater because of the song’s history of being performed at racist minstrel shows.

Earlier this month, the band’s director asked its members to fill out an internal survey asking whether they would be willing to play “The Eyes of Texas” at a football game this Saturday.

“Based on (survey responses), we do not have the necessary instrumentation, so we will not participate in Saturday’s game,” director Scott Hanna said in a message obtained by The Daily Texan. Band members told the student publication that the survey asked whether they were willing to play the song, and that their answer would not affect their ability to remain in the band.

While the band will not perform the song live, a recording of the song will still air this weekend.

“The Eyes of Texas will be played this weekend as it has been throughout this season — and it will continue to be played at future games and events,” Jay Hartzell, the university’s president, wrote in a statement. “While we would love the band to be with our fans at all our games, we never planned for them to perform live this Saturday.”

Hartzell wrote that he is “truly optimistic” that the university will be able to “find ways” to celebrate a song that “has been so positive for so many Longhorns over the past 120 years.”

What’s the history behind this song?

It’s an understatement to say that the song’s history is closely connected to the school. The song has been played before and after every single one of the university’s sporting events since it was written in 1903.

The song’s title is inspired by Robert E. Lee, who along with being a Confederate general in the Civil War was the president of what is now called Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

“Lee, as president, used to say to his assembled faculty and students, ‘The eyes of the South are upon you,'” Edmund T. Gordon, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, told the Austin American-Statesman’s publication, Hook ‘Em. “When [William Lambdin] Prather became president of the University of Texas, he began saying at the end of his talks to students and faculty that ‘The eyes of Texas are upon you.'”

The song was reportedly first performed at the Hancock Opera House by blackface White singers at a minstrel show fundraiser for the university’s athletics department in the 1900s.

“The Eyes of Texas” is also set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which was originally known as “Levee Song,” which parodied black railroad and levee camp workers.

Why is all of this coming up now?

Recent Black Lives Matter protests, which have led to monuments with racist pasts being taken down, may have renewed interest in the history of “The Eyes of Texas.”

Over the summer, student-athletes released a joint statement, shared on Twitter, saying that they will not participate in recruitment or donor-related events if the university didn’t comply with certain demands.

In addition to renaming several school buildings, and outreach programs, the athletes asked that the school replace “The Eyes of Texas” with “a new song without racist undertones.”

In response, the university said it would rename several buildings, but will keep the song as its alma mater.

“Aspects of its origin, whether previously widely known or unknown, have created a rift in how the song is understood and celebrated, and that must be fixed,” Hartzell, who was the primary signer of the statement, wrote. “It is my belief that we can effectively reclaim and redefine what this song stands for by first owning and acknowledging its history in a way that is open and transparent.”

CNN reached out to the University of Texas for comment.

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