What University of Texas athletes are fighting for: A walk through campus history

A group of athletes from the University of Texas are calling for a series of racial justice reforms, including the renaming of some buildings, a contribution from the athletics department to Black Lives Matter and the retirement of the song "The Eyes of Texas." (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
A group of athletes from the University of Texas are calling for a series of racial justice reforms, including the renaming of some buildings, a contribution from the athletics department to Black Lives Matter and the retirement of the song "The Eyes of Texas." (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

A group of athletes from the University of Texas are calling for a series of racial justice reforms, including the renaming of some buildings, a contribution from the athletics department to Black Lives Matter and the retirement of the song "The Eyes of Texas." (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

On June 12, the University of Texas Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and a group of Longhorn athletes shared a letter calling on the university to make UT "more comfortable and inclusive for the black athletes and the black community that has so fervently supported this program."

The letter, written following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody and subsequent protests nationwide, said the UT football team collectively believes "it is time we become active on our campus." Football players, including Brennan Eagles, Caden Sterns and Josh Thompson, shared the letter, as did an array of Longhorn athletes representing multiple sports.

The letter makes a number of specific requests of the university administration, including renaming buildings, providing more outreach to cities in Texas, making a 0.5% donation from the UT athletics department to the Black Lives Matter movements and replacing "The Eyes of Texas" with "a new song without racist undertones."

Athletics Director Chris Del Conte responded in a tweet and said he "is always willing to have meaningful conversations" with student-athletes.

Interim President Jay Hartzell, in a June 15 message to the UT community, said he has begun scheduling conversations with students.

"Working together, we will create a plan this summer to address these issues, do better for our students and help overcome racism," Hartzell said.

The buildings the athletes said should be renamed all have connections to individuals who were tied to the Confederacy or have a history of other racist acts.

Dr. Ted Gordon, an associate professor at UT and its vice provost for diversity, mentions many of the individuals named in the letter in his "Racial Geography Tour," a guide through the racial history of the campus available on UT's website.

Using Gordon's tour and other historical documents, here is the history behind the individuals and groups UT athletes have mentioned specifically in their request for change.

Littlefield Hall: Alice Littlefield and George Washington Littlefield

Littlefield Hall, a dormitory for freshman women, is named for Alice Littlefield, wife of George Washington Littlefield. The name appears frequently across UT's campus, including the nearby Littlefield Home at the corner of Guadalupe and 24th streets, which houses the University Events Office and the Littlefield Fountain, a popular spot for graduation photos on the university's mall.

"It would not be possible to tell the story of the University of Texas without the mention of G.W. Littlefield," reads UT's website for the Littlefield Home. "His love of education and generous gifts can be reflected throughout the campus."

A plantation owner in the Gonzales, Texas area, Littlefield enlisted in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He rose to the rank of company commander, and when his military career ended in 1863, he was promoted to major, "a title by which he was addressed after the mid-1880s," according to the Texas State Historical Association.

By the 1880s and 1890s, Littlefield had become a cattle baron and one of the richest people in the country, according to Gordon. He opened a hotel, built the Littlefield Home and became a regent for the University of Texas.

Before his death in 1920, Littlefield commissioned Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini to construct statues on the South Mall to honor major figures of the Confederacy as well as the Littlefield Fountain, which depicts a goddess named Columbia.

"Coppini told Littlefield he was interested in working on the project but that he thought just having Confederate statues would limit the appeal of the installation and be seen as divisive," Gordon said on the tour.

As a compromise, Coppini and Littlefield agreed to build a statue of Woodrow Wilson on the mall to join figures of the Confederacy, from Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston and John Reagan.

The statue of Davis was taken down in 2015—along with the statue of Wilson, for symmetry—and moved to the Briscoe Center for American History, according to a UT news release.

In 2017, following racist and white supremacist displays in Charlottesville, Virginia, then-UT President Gregory Fenves decided to relocate the four remaining statues on the mall: Lee, Johnston, Reagan and former Texas Gov. James Stephen Hogg.

Fenves said at the time that the events in Charlottesville made "it clear [then], more than ever, that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism."

Hogg Memorial Auditorium: James Stephen Hogg

Hogg's statue was taken off the mall in 2017, but the namesake of the performing arts space on campus was not a member of the Confederacy. He was born in 1851 near Rusk in East Texas. His father, Joseph Lewis Hogg, was a Confederate brigadier general who was killed at the head of his command in 1862, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Hogg went on to become the first Texas-born governor of the state. When his statue was removed from the South Mall in 2017, Fenves said he intended to return it to a different location on campus at a later time.

In December 2018, Fenves announced the statue would be coming back to campus, located between the Main Building and the Will C. Hogg Building, named for James Stephen Hogg's son.

Standing six-foot-two and nearly 300 pounds, Hogg was nicknamed "BIg Jim," according to Humanities Texas. He served as governor from 1891-95, and during that time, according to a 2018 letter from Fenves, he championed public education, passed anti-monopoly laws and created the Railroad Commission of Texas.

However, Hogg also allowed laws to pass the Texas Legislature that reinforced segregation in railroad cars, which "provided the legal basis for segregated facilities and services that would usher in the Jim Crow era in Texas," Fenves wrote.

Painter Hall: Theophilus Shickel Painter

Painter was acting president of the university from 1944-46 and then served as UT's 13th president until 1952.

In 1950, Painter was the defendant in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case "Sweatt v. Painter." Heman Marion Sweatt, with the support of the NAACP, brought the case against the university when he was denied admission to UT's law school because he was black.

Sweatt was denied admission to UT in 1946. A year later, "believing the 'separate but equal' doctrine would carry the day," according to Texas Southern University's history page, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that provided for the establishment of the Texas State University for Negroes and approved $2 million just outside Houston to purchase land where the school would be built.

Over the course of four years, Sweatt's case made its way through the courts and ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor and said that the education he would receive at another law school would not be equivalent to what he could receive at UT.

"Whether the University of Texas Law School is compared with the original or the new law school for Negroes, we cannot find substantial equality in the educational opportunities offered white and Negro law students by the State," wrote Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, delivering the court's opinion. "It is difficult to believe that one who had a free choice between these law schools would consider the question close."

In 1951, the Texas State University for Negroes was renamed Texas Southern University. The Travis County Courthouse is now named for Sweatt, as is the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males at UT, a community promoting academic excellence for black men.

Robert Lee Moore Hall

Moore taught at UT from 1920-69, when, according to the Briscoe Center for American History, he was forced to retire at the age of 86.

Robert Lee Moore Hall was built in 1972. It houses the departments of mathematics, physics and astronomy.

"Robert Lee Moore was a famous, noted mathematician, who was also a racist mathematician," Gordon said on the tour.

Archival documents show he resisted letting black students into his classes even after the university integrated. After he was forced to let those black students into his classes, on at least one occasion, he told a black student that the student would start with a C grade and automatically go down from there.

The letter from UT athletes is not the first attempt on campus to rename the building. In 2017, according to The Daily Texan, a student group formed to support the renaming and had discussions with university administrators as well as the community over the course of the next two years.

"The Eyes of Texas"

The tour stop at the Texas Cowboys Pavilion received significant attention online when the College of Liberal Arts shared Gordon's message in a tweet, which was retweeted more than 1,700 times.

Before he was UT's president from 1899-1905, William Prather was a student at Washington College in Virginia—now Washington & Lee University—where, according to the Texes Exes website, then-university President Robert E. Lee would tell the students, "The eyes of the South are upon you."

Prather liked the phrase and adapted it to "The eyes of Texas are upon you" when he became president of UT, according to Gordon. To satirize President Prather, a group of students set the phrase to the tune of "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad."

The song was first performed at a Varsity Minstrel Show put on by the Texas Cowboys in 1903 on West Sixth Street, according to the Texas Exes website.

"This is a satirical song which was sung originally, and for many, many years, as part of minstrel shows. So it's a minstrel song that was sung in blackface by folks," Gordon said. "It's another key part of Texas history, racial history, which is kind of embedded in the architecture and geography of this place."

By Jack Flagler
Jack is the editor of Community Impact Newspaper's Central Austin and Southwest Austin editions. He began his career as a sports reporter in Massachusetts and North Carolina before moving to Austin in 2018. He grew up in Maine and graduated from Boston University, but prefers tacos al pastor to lobster rolls. You can get in touch at jflagler@communityimpact.com


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