The University of Texas at San Antonio is taking heat from the UT System’s board of regents for its recent decision to stop displaying the famous “Come and take it” flag at football games after some in the university community argued the slogan has a racist history.
Regents Chair Kevin Eltife said in a statement last week that he was disappointed by UTSA President Taylor Eighmy’s decision to end the six-year tradition, which included unfurling an enormous flag with the slogan across the student section during the fourth quarter of football games and firing a cannon.
“The Board of Regents does not support abandoning traditions and history that mean much to students, alumni, and other Texans,” Eltife said. “I am very disappointed with this decision and will immediately ask our Board to establish policies that ensure that the governing body of the UT System will have the opportunity in the future to be consulted before important university traditions and observances are changed.”
Eltife and a system spokesperson did not provide additional details as to what policies he’s seeking.
UTSA started displaying the flag in 2011, the school’s first football season, and it became an official tradition in 2016 to inspire fans and challenge opponents on the field.
The origins of the flag, which includes the slogan and an image of a cannon under a star, stem from the Battle of Gonzales during the Texas Revolution in 1835. As the story goes, Mexican authorities loaned a small cannon to the town of Gonzales for protection from Native American tribes. When the Mexican troops asked for the return of the cannon, the people of Gonzales responded by raising a handmade flag with the words “Come and take it.”
The flag has long been a symbol of Texas pride and has commonly been adopted by groups sending a message of defiance or protesting government overreach, such as Second Amendment supporters and abortion rights advocates.
Opponents of the tradition at UTSA raised concerns that versions of the motto were superimposed onto Confederate flags and flown at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and had been co-opted by groups that expressed anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Nearly 60% of the almost 35,000 UTSA student body is Hispanic, and the school is designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the federal government. The university has also emphasized its desire to be a “Hispanic thriving institution.”
Some historians said that while this particular moment in history sparked a feeling of rebellion toward the Mexican government, it also resulted in anti-Mexican sentiment that carried into the Texas Republic. The eventual creation of the Texas Republic also led to the re-legalization of slavery in that territory.
“Tejanos lost land, lost political offices, lost economic power,” UTSA history professor Omar Valerio-Jimenez said of this period in history. “It’s not a time when Tejanos did well.”
Eighmy declined a request for an interview, but he said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Monday that he appreciated the board’s perspective.
“We look forward to continuing our work together to advance education, research and service for the public good,” Eighmy said.
UTSA administrators started getting pushback to the tradition in August when the school unveiled a new, $40 million sports facility, called the Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence, and decorated it with the flag and slogan.
A former UTSA professor started a petition, which garnered around 960 signatures, arguing UTSA should remove the phrase because it is “anti-Mexican and pro slavery.”
Sarah Zenaida Gould, executive director of the Mexican American Civil Rights Institute in San Antonio, said she thinks that part of the history has been lost over time for some, and commended the university for its decision.
“I think the more that the public is starting to understand the context of things like the Battle of the Alamo and racial politics embedded in the Texas Revolution, I think that flag is only going to become more problematic if they let it stay,” she said.
Initially, Eighmy said in early August that the meaning of the flag might be different for different people, and he announced a plan for a task force to explore current and future traditions.
But last week, he said in a letter to the UTSA community that he was ending the tradition and not proceeding with the task force.
Eighmy said in the note that an online search revealed multiple groups had adopted the slogan for particular causes over the past few years, many of which have values and agendas that differ from UTSA’s mission as a public university.
“The phrase — as well intended as it was upon inception and adoption — has increasingly become incongruent with UTSA Athletics and our institution’s mission and core values,” he wrote. “For our athletics program and our university — each with so much promise and upward momentum — there is no benefit to becoming embroiled in a divisive issue that could carry well into the future and negatively affect our progress.”
He tasked the vice president for intercollegiate athletics to work with football players, students, faculty, staff and alumni to create a new fourth-quarter tradition that will launch during the fall 2022 football season.
Since Eighmy announced his decision, a new petition urging the school to keep the tradition has circulated online with more than 3,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning. Lindee Fiedler, chair of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at UTSA, said there is confusion among students in her organization about how the use of the flag is offensive. She wishes there had been a vote among the school community about what to do.
“We are really wary [of erasing] history,” Fiedler said. “We don’t want to get rid of that historical context of our state and of our school. ... It inspires a lot of pride for most of the students. And anybody who I guess is offended by it is probably a small amount of people.”
This isn’t the first time the UT System Board of Regents has intervened to side with university tradition.
The regents supported the University of Texas at Austin’s decision to keep “The Eyes of Texas” after students and faculty at the flagship university called on the school to stop singing the song because of their concerns with its origins at a campus minstrel show at the turn of the 20th century where students likely wore blackface.
Eltife worked closely with UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell to develop a list of initiatives to improve diversity on campus and stood by Hartzell’s decision to keep the song.
“The Eyes of Texas has been UT Austin’s official school song for almost 120 years,” Eltife said in an October statement. “To be clear, the UT System Board of Regents stands unequivocally and unanimously in support of President Hartzell’s announcement that The Eyes of Texas is, and will remain, the official school song.”
In San Antonio this past weekend, UTSA football fans continued the tradition in different ways, including waving smaller “Come and take it” flags and chanting the phrase in the stands.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news, curated by The Texas Tribune’s award-winning journalists. Learn more.
Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.