Peeling the Onion

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

Onion Horton, on the air.
Onion Horton, on the air. PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG

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click to enlarge Former St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones on Horton's nickname: "Onions have a contrary flavor to them. People turn up their nose and get uncomfortable." - PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
Former St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones on Horton's nickname: "Onions have a contrary flavor to them. People turn up their nose and get uncomfortable."
Onion Horton can't stand on the sidewalk for five minutes without someone calling out his name. Nearly every time the light turns red on Delmar Boulevard outside the New Black City offices, someone says hello while waiting for traffic. Fans range from transit workers to elected officials. "Hey, Onion!" yells Ald. Irving Clay Jr. (D-26th), who's driving a convertible. "Brother Clay!" Onion shoots back with a laugh. "Hey, you're supposed to be at work!"

He's not shy, especially with women. "Pardon me" he says to a stranger waiting for a bus. "Can I have one of your potato chips?" His humble tone is distinctly non-Onion -- who could refuse him? And so the woman holds out her bag, allowing Onion to pluck one himself. "My name is Richard," he says, calling her by name after looking at the sticker on her blouse that says "Hello, my name is Jean." Jean Sykes nods politely, looking somewhat curious as to why this man is sweating in a bus shelter in mid-July while getting his picture taken. Then she finds out who he is. Her face lights up with a huge smile.

"You're Onion Horton?" Sykes exclaims. "My daddy listened to you all the time!" Just then, her bus arrives. She stays put. Sykes says she often listened along with her father. She doesn't know what Onion's doing now, but she's pleased to hear he's on the Internet. "If he's still working, that's all that counts," she says. "We liked his show. He's informative. He speaks the truth on different issues. He's not faking it. He's for real. And it's funny. You might not always agree with him, but he's funny. I'm going to go back to the office and say, 'Guess what? I met Onion Horton.' He's one of my heroes." She tells Onion she's spending the day at a job-training program just a half-block away -- would he come down and talk to everyone? "They would love it," she pleads. Onion gets the address. "I'll stop by before I leave," he promises.

This sort of thing happens all the time. Onion says he can't understand why, but he's grateful. "It's wonderful," he says. "People are just so unbelievably kind. I don't do anything. I just sit there and talk about racism."

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."

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.

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.

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."

If anything, Onion is more critical of blacks than he is of whites. He expects white people to behave in racist ways, but he reserves his harshest words for Uncle Remuses (he disdains the term Uncle Tom). He says sellouts should be severely punished but that they never are. "The only ones who can sell their brothers out and get another chance is black people," he says. "I want to be as afraid of black people as I am of white people. If I sell out, I don't think I should be able to walk the streets of North St. Louis. If I do that, I should be hurt -- they're supposed to do something physically to me if I do that. I don't think my family should be safe."

But that doesn't mean he commands universal respect. After more than two decades in broadcasting, Onion has earned his share of critics. Some say he's a sellout; some say he takes money that isn't his. The IRS has been after him. Eventually reduced to buying airtime to get his message across, Onion is now fighting to be heard at all.

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