Peeling the Onion

Onion Horton says he's everything a white man wants a black man to be

Where others see rainbows, Onion sees rain. He admires Farrakhan, saying both he and the Muslim minister are everything a white man wants a black man to be: They don't smoke, don't drink, don't chase white women and don't socialize outside black neighborhoods. "I'm an economic integrationist," he declares. Although Julia Roberts is his favorite actress, Onion frowns on interracial dating. Crips and Bloods are good for the black community, he says, because they've deterred white people from making the kind of direct remarks to blacks that his father had to bear when he worked in a grocery warehouse and a shoeshine stand -- it's about time white people have to fear for their safety if they don't show respect. "White men would poke you in the butt and you had to laugh," he says, recalling the overt discrimination his dad faced. On his show, Caucasians are "white boys"; blacks are "black people," "Negroes" or "Negro dogs," depending on whether they're doing the right thing or selling out. "If the problem of racism in America was created by white people, they're the only ones who can solve it," he says. He doesn't think black people will ever get a fair shake. "Will it ever change?" he asks. "The answer is yes -- it's going to get worse. I have less faith than I ever did."

He constantly challenges listeners and callers to prove him wrong and boasts that the facts and statistics he uses on his show come from white mainstream newspapers, so doubters can't accuse him of using slanted sources. He's a regular at the public library, spending upwards of 10 hours a week reading at the main branch -- books about politics, history and the Supreme Court are particular favorites. He can tell you the name of Ronald Reagan's first attorney general (William French Smith) and how many states the Gipper carried when he was re-elected (49). When talking to callers, he freely admits that he stacks the deck in his own favor. "When I pick the subject, I pick a subject where I can't be wrong," he says. He insists he's not a black Rush Limbaugh but allows that the comparison is fair up to a point. "It's interesting how KMOX can have Rush Limbaugh and he's paid millions of dollars," he muses. "Black people speak our feelings, and all of a sudden we're dividing the races."

It's not surprising that folks jump to conclusions about his nickname. "That name should give you a clue," says former St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones, a sometime talk-show host himself who says he agrees with about 90 percent of what Onion says. "I think the nickname came from the fact that onions have a contrary flavor to them. People turn up their nose and get uncomfortable."

Onion, once one of the hottest black radio hosts in St. Louis, now does his talking on the Internet.
Jennifer Silverberg
Onion, once one of the hottest black radio hosts in St. Louis, now does his talking on the Internet.

Actually, the name came from a girl who played on a youth-softball team Onion coached in the mid-1960s. Back then, he wore his hair about 2 inches long. On the same day a barber buzzed him, he took the team to the movies, a double feature that included The Sons of Katie Elder, featuring John Wayne, and Onionhead, starring Andy Griffith. Taking a cue from the latter, the girl told her coach that his head looked like an onion.

Born in Arkansas in 1933, Onion has a worldview steeped in a time when blacks couldn't use the same toilets as whites, couldn't watch movies in certain theaters and couldn't eat a hamburger inside the old Parkmoor restaurant at Cote Brilliante and Kingshighway, just down the street from where he lives today. One of his favorite stories is about the time his mom took him to Forest Park for a hotdog and soda during a summertime visit to St. Louis when he was about 10 years old. When he pointed and asked to ride the roller coaster at the nearby Forest Park Highlands, she told him she didn't have enough money. But all the money in the world wouldn't have gotten him into the amusement park, which didn't admit blacks. A deeply religious woman who believed Jesus would make everything OK, she lied to Onion about separate-but-equal and planted the seeds of his pessimism toward religion.

Onion's life changed permanently after his parents separated when he was 9 years old and he was sent to live in Fort Wayne, Ind., with a grandmother and uncle, who told him the real reason his mom didn't take him on the roller coaster. "I went to them for six years, and I became black before Martin Luther King was ever born," he says. "Best thing that ever happened to me was a broken home. The first thing they did, they jerked Jesus out of there. I knew my grandmother and my uncle would never tell me anything that was wrong. Everything they told me about race, it just stuck there. I've had the same views since I was a child."

Onion says he graduated from high school in Fort Wayne at age 16 and joined the Air Force in 1954, the same year he got married, six months after his first child, Loretta, was born. What did he do between graduation and joining the service? "Nothing," he answers flatly, offering no details. The marriage, which ended in divorce in 1985, produced four children, including two sons who live in the Central West End. His two daughters live in Chicago and Kansas City. One is a special-education teacher; the other works for a Lutheran ministry. His son and namesake, Richard Horton Jr., is a police officer at St. Louis University. Allen Horton is a mobile disc jockey, working parties, weddings and other social gatherings.

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