Peeling the Onion

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

Onion became a postal clerk after his Air Force discharge, working nights until his retirement in the 1970s. His children were one of his first audiences. Saturday-morning breakfasts were a family tradition, and Onion didn't care that his kids were less than 10 years old. "We were getting these basically adult talks," Allen Horton says. "He would just talk about life in general. Most of it was talking about race and some of the obstacles that were put up against you because of what you were. When he presented the race issue, he never presented it with the attitude of hate. You can say he was pessimistic, but in all reality, he was being real. I mean, there was no need of him telling us something that he felt in his own mind and his heart that wasn't going to happen." Onion talks about race the same way with his grandchildren, who sometimes take him too literally. He delights in telling the story of a granddaughter who pointed out a white man passed out drunk in the gutter, then asked Grandpa why the man was lying there if he owned the world.

Onion professes that his only real fear is being physically attacked by white people, especially police officers. "When I see a police car, I just shiver," he says, even though he's never been roughed up by a cop. "But it can happen tomorrow," he says. His son sees a braver man. "If he has a fear, I don't know what it is," Allen Horton says. "I think maybe his biggest fear is something he doesn't have to worry about anymore: us failing him. He might have had that fear, but since we're all grown and established, he doesn't have to worry anymore." Family has always been important to Onion. His son learned this firsthand when Onion's father died in 1978. "His father told him the same things he told us," Allen Horton says. "When his father died, it was the first time I actually saw him cry. It kind of took me for a loop. I was 19 years old. I had never seen my father show any kind of emotion. That's when I realized that under all that grit, there was a human being."

Onion is happiest when he's with his children and grandchildren, Allen Horton says. Even today, Horton attends as many as 100 high-school basketball games a year with his father, traveling as far as Mississippi for state tourneys. They've been doing it for more than 20 years. They have no favorite school. Rather, they study newspapers to determine the best matchups, then drive as far as necessary. Onion is more than just a fan. He has become a player in the high-stakes world of collegiate recruiting. When Quin Snyder was named basketball coach at the University of Missouri-Columbia, one of his first acts was to visit Onion, whose approval or disapproval of the new coach could sway high-school prospects. Onion had often blasted former coach Norm Stewart for not making sure black players graduated, and some hoops junkies believe recruiting in St. Louis suffered because of his stance. "If you can't recruit in St. Louis and East St. Louis, you can't win," Jones says. "If the parents of these children who play basketball are listening to Onion on the radio and Onion says that Quin Snyder is not a good guy, then these people won't go there." Although Onion says he approves of Snyder, his public disdain for Mizzou dates back to the 1970s, when he urged high-school football players to boycott the university because blacks were being benched in favor of less talented white players.

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.

When Allen Horton graduated from high school, he considered studying journalism at the University of Missouri. On the other hand, a heating-and-air-conditioning company had offered him a good-paying job as a welder. "[Onion] told me to take the job," Allen Horton says. "He said 'You're going to college to prepare yourself for work anyway.' He kept saying 'We've got schools here in St. Louis. If the job doesn't work out, you can always go to school.'" Horton took his father's advice and spent 24 years with the same company before abruptly quitting a few years ago to start his DJ business. He goes by the moniker Baby O when he's playing music. "I'm 42 years old, and just about everything I've accomplished now I can attribute to him," Horton says. "I'm proud of him -- not just because of his celebrity status but because he's my dad."

Onion is also respected in his North St. Louis neighborhood, where gang members roam the streets and crime is routine. According to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the neighborhood saw four homicides, 22 robberies, 70 assaults and 484 property crimes during the first six months of this year. Onion thinks nothing of taking an evening stroll. "He does it all the time," his son says. "He's totally comfortable where he is. He knows everybody in the neighborhood. All the bad people know who he is, and he knows who they are. When he walks by, he doesn't cross the street. He speaks to them. They speak back."

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