“The Eyes of Texas” may go blind. There is a move by some UT athletes to drop the Eyes for some other unspecified song, certainly not another tune the Longhorn Band plays, “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which has a far more interesting background story. This name change is part of a list the jocks want to make the 40 Acres less racial, more inclusive. Among other demands, they want to topple a few statues (several Confederate statues have already been removed from its campus grounds), rename some buildings and want part (part?) of Darrel K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to be renamed after Julius Whittier, the Longhorns’ first black player. The athletes added that if the required changes aren’t implemented, they “will not be participating in the recruitment of incoming players or other alumni events,” although they would regularly participate in training and other team activities.
OK, change some names. Get rid of some statues, which I didn’t know were there during my checkered career at UT, but dropping the Eyes may present problems, especially when trying to hit up alums for money. It is one of the better known school songs around the country, has a tenuous connection to the Confederacy and slavery, but was performed years ago at UT’s black-face minstrel shows. (I wrote skits for that show, but it had not been black-face for years.) John Sinclair wrote the lyrics in 1903 to the tune of the folk song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” that was published nine years earlier in 1894. Sinclair was the editor of the Cactus yearbook and a UT band member. He was also the program director of the Varsity Minstrel Show that raised funds for the university track team. The lyrics probably poked fun at UT President William Lambdin Prather. Prather had attended Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, whose president, Robert E. Lee, would frequently tell his students, “The eyes of the South are upon you.” Prather included in his speeches a similar admonition, “The eyes of Texas are upon you.” Texas was watching and expected the students to go out and be successful.
I don’t know about the students, but the song was certainly successful. It was played before Super Bowl XXVII when the Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, and when the Houston Rockets defeated the New York Knicks in the seventh game of the 1994 NBA Finals. A copy of the original lyrics made it to the moon in 1969 thanks to UT alumnus Alan Bean. Led by the Longhorn Marching Band, it was sung at the funeral of Lady Bird Johnson, a UT ex. The Jeff Carson version became a national chart record in 1996. The Aggie War Hymn includes the lyrics, “‘The Eyes of Texas are upon you’, that is the song they sing so well (sounds like hell).” The Aggies may have to drop those lines. The song has appeared in countless movies including “Giant,” “The Alamo” and “The Right Stuff.” In Steven Spielberg’s 1974 movie “The Sugarland Express,” a marching band is playing “The Eyes of Texas.”
UT has an embarrassing background on student racial matters, just like most other Southern schools, and now is the target of a nationwide movement to demote, if not erase, all things Confederate, slavery and segregation. But this is a slippery slope. Texas has about 180 public symbols honoring the Confederacy, 60 of them are monuments or statues. We also have Confederate Heroes Day. We have Jefferson Davis County, the towns of Stonewall and Robert Lee, (for some reason, no E), the county seat of Coke County, and so on. Even Texas A&M is toying with removing a statue of Confederate general and former Texas Gov. Sul Ross, who was once president of the school. Dear Aggies, Sul Ross saved that school from extinction. If it weren’t for him, you’d be getting rejection applications from UT. Next we’ll be outlawing Dixie Cups.
Across Texas statues are being toppled, names changed. Only Virginia has more Confederate symbols than Texas. Houston has a statue of Dicky Dowling, which is now in Hermann Park. Mayor Sylvester Turner planned to move the statue to Port Arthur near Sabine Pass, but forgot to tell Port Arthur, which doesn’t want it. (Dowling Street has already been renamed Emancipation Avenue.) So why Port Arthur and Sabine Pass? In September of 1863, a Union armada sailed from New Orleans, headed to Sabine Pass. Capture the pass, then Beaumont 18 miles away and its rail line connecting Texas to the eastern Confederacy, on to Houston with its rail lines into the rest of Texas.
When the war broke out, Dowling, a 26-year-old red-headed jovial Irishman, recruited fellow Irishmen from his various bars. They were sent to guard Sabine Pass. Once there, they rowed out into the shallow waters and stuck poles, painted white, into the bottom, then practiced hitting the poles with their artillery — six cannon: two 24 pounders and four 32 pounders. On Sept 8, 1863, the Union armada with 22 warships carrying supplies plus 5,000 infantry, artillery and cavalry, arrived. Lt. Dowling and his 45 men fired as the warships steamed by the white poles. When the dust cleared, the Confederates captured 300 Union prisoners and two gunboats. The armada left. Not a single defender had been scratched. It was the most lopsided battle of the Civil War.
What would have happened to Houston – and Texas — if the Union assault had succeeded? If the fall of other Southern cities like Atlanta is any clue, nothing good. Dowling died in 1867 from yellow fever. His statue was raised in 1905 and moved twice. His sword has been stolen five times. Wherever Dowling’s statue winds up, his pedestal should read, “The Savior of Houston and Texas.” Douglas Brinkley, a noted author and Rice professor, says of this and other such movements, “They are allowed a 21st-century moment.”
Ashby’s statue is at email@example.com