Home Susan Yerkes Opening our eyes to the lessons of history

Opening our eyes to the lessons of history


I never thought the University of Texas at Austin’s “The Eyes of Texas” was a racist song. As an alumna, I still don’t. But, I certainly know a lot more about it after a UT committee released a detailed report in March. The members found little evidence to connect the line “The eyes of Texas are upon you” to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and none at all to suggest it espoused slavery. However, the group found the lyric quoted in a rousing speech by former UT President William Prather in the 1900s, and Prather got it from an exhortation by Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gregg to his troops.

Gregg may have referenced George Washington’s famous quotation, “The eyes of all our countrymen are upon us.” Or, he could’ve made it up. Whatever. For now, “The Eyes of Texas” remains the official school song.   

But now the accusation of racism is out there, and it’ll continue to cause controversy, just as the protest against singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” still riles up folks. Our nation’s history includes many sad and shameful traditions, from genocide against Native Americans to slavery. I love my country, but I can’t pretend our story isn’t rife with painful discrimination.

Here in San Antonio, with a Latino majority, most of my Black and Hispanic friends recall hurtful bigotry. You can legislate equality, you can cancel culture, but you cannot wave a magic wand to make prejudice disappear.

Will removing Dr. Seuss books or “Little House on the Prairie” from libraries change the past? Does “whiting out” history make us a stronger nation? Plans to restore the Alamo have been hampered by a battle over what parts of the struggle for Texas independence should be presented. There’s even a debate about any mention of slavery when “reimagining” the Alamo — even though William Barret Travis’ slave, Joe, was one of the only survivors of the siege.

It seems to me the truth about history, warts and all, helps us learn from the past, not repeat it. At UT-Austin, President Jay Hartzell has now created new programs to recruit and support Black students and more diverse faculty. He also wants to erect more monuments and spaces honoring minorities. This wouldn’t erase the fact Black students weren’t even admitted there until the 1950s. Yet, it seems to me moving forward to change the world in positive ways makes more sense than searching the past for long-dead people to pillory.

A few years ago, at a Texas Exes event, I had the opportunity to meet internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad, one of UT-Austin’s most accomplished alums. In 1956, Conrad was one of the Precursors – the first group of Black attendees at the university. Born near Pittsburg, Texas, she enrolled at the university the first year of its desegregation. A brilliant singer, she won the lead in a student opera, but the Legislature threatened to cut UT’s funding if a Black woman was allowed to play a major role opposite a white man. Sadly, the school caved.

Harry Belafonte heard and offered to pay for her transfer elsewhere. She declined. The pioneer wanted to stay and be a part of the change. A civil-rights champion until her death in 2017, Conrad proudly sang “The Eyes of Texas” at the university’s 2000 commencement. Later, she said she chose to remain at UT because, “Music can unite us.” 

Is it too much to hope exposing and acknowledging the past, and working to change the future, can unite us, instead of divide us?



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