Richard 'Onion' Horton: Controversial radio commentator was unafraid to talk about race
Updated with funeral and memorial arrangements. - Richard “Onion” Horton, one of the most colorful figures in St. Louis talk radio for more than three decades, has died.
Mr. Horton immersed himself in the facts, figures and statistics he gleaned daily from media sources. It was his battle raiment for his radio programs that aired on various St. Louis radio stations over the years; his longest run was at WGNU.
No matter where he worked, his voice and his views were unmistakable. He was intense, direct and unyielding in his demand for fair treatment of black people. He was entertaining. His reputation as a straight-shooter endeared him to his primarily black audience.
“He opened eyes every time he said something,” said Charlie “Tuna” Edwards, a longtime radio personality who said Mr. Horton taught him radio. “He was incredible because of his knowledge.”
Mr. Horton challenged any listener who disputed him to “Meet me at the library,” often adding, “The most dangerous man in America is a black man with a library card.”
Not everyone was enthusiastic about Mr. Horton’s views. His detractors called him racially divisive – and worse. Few were neutral about the combative radio personality. Mr. Horton, by all accounts, did not care.
''I guess I've been called everything in the book,'' he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1989.
Mr. Horton, who had lived most of his life in the heart of the city’s North Side, died on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24) of Alzheimer’s disease at Beauvais Manor on the Park in St. Louis. He was 80.
Services will be at 10 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 2, at Officer Funeral Home in East St. Louis.
Talk Radio Wars
Barbershop chatter launched Mr. Horton’s broadcast career in the early ’70s. Morris Henderson, then the St. Louis American sports editor, was one of the men at Luther Barber Shop whom Mr. Horton regaled with his knowledge of sports. Henderson liked the way he told a story and offered him a job at the American.
His first column, like all his work that followed, had a racial tilt. It was about a black Kirkwood High School basketball standout who was denied a spot on an all-star team. Mr. Horton believed it was about race and he said so.
Later, he took on a much larger school: Mizzou, the University of Missouri’s flagship. Edwards said Mr. Horton was the first to object to the school’s fight song, The Missouri Waltz.
The song originally included lyrics like “Way down in Missouri where I heard this melody, When I was a Pickaninny on ma Mammy's knee; The darkies were hummin'; their banjos were strummin'; So sweet and low.”
The updated lyrics still yearn for Dixie, but no longer contain the most offensive lines. Because of the song and other school practices, Mr. Horton exhorted black athletes to boycott Mizzou.
When Quin Snyder was named Mizzou’s new basketball coach in 1996, he came to St. Louis to get Horton’s blessing. He feared Mr. Horton’s words could affect his ability to recruit top players from the metro area.
His voice was gaining power and Mr. Horton moved seamlessly from print to radio. He credited Henderson, who had criticized KMOX for not having enough black sports commentators; the station hired Mr. Horton. It was a short tenure.
According to his son Allen Horton, Mr. Horton believed that Jack Buck did not like him. In fact, Mr. Horton told the Riverfront Times in 2001, Bob Costas was the only one at the station who would work with him. He soon left, but the paychecks kept coming.
"They sent me a check every week for, I guess, a couple years," Mr. Horton told the RFT. "If it didn't show up, I'd call and say, 'Where's my check?'”
He got an hour-long Sunday-night slot on KKSS, and took over Scott St. James’ show when St. James left for KMOX. Then KKSS changed its format from talk to music and Mr. Horton was on the move again.
In 1985, he landed at WGNU, where he replaced another well-known black radio personality, Bernie Hayes. He left WGNU 10 years later, amid a dispute over advertising revenue. The station’s owner, Chuck Norman, sued Mr. Horton. He bore Norman no grudge.
"I thought Chuck was one of the fairest people I ever met,” Mr. Horton told the RFT.
After leaving WGNU, Mr. Horton was again set to replace Bernie Hayes, this time at KATZ. But the move embroiled him in a personal controversy.
Hayes was fighting for his job at KATZ where, in 1979, he became the first black talk radio show host in St. Louis. His regular guests included St. Louis notables like Greg Freeman, George Curry, Betty Lee, Betty Thompson, Ida Goodwin Woolfolk – and Onion Horton. Taking Hayes’ place in would be tricky.
"Definitely it wasn't a sellout," Mr. Horton told the RFT. "I don't ever want to say anything negative about Bernie."
Hayes appears to harbor no bitterness.
“Onion was always Onion; he was never pretentious about anything,” Hayes said. His greatest contribution was “being a voice of dissent and his quest for truth.
“The positions he took were very unpopular with white people, but he was not afraid to talk about race,” Hayes said.
Ironically, in 1996, a black group called the Coalition for Free Speech accused Mr. Horton and his colleague Mark Kasen of promoting racism at KATZ.
Eventually, he decided to go into business for himself. He partnered with Kasen to form Onion Horton Productions and planned to buy a radio station. They hired two attorneys, Lee Platke and Stuart Berkowitz, to broker the deal. Mr. Horton and Kasen said their attorneys stole their station; in 2001, a court agreed and awarded them $175,000.
Mr. Horton, who often said he did not trust white people, expressed surprise that a jury that included 10 whites ruled in his favor.
“They were white, and I expected them to act white,” Mr. Horton told the RFT. “It was just beautiful.”
Mr. Horton and Kasen worked briefly at their “stolen” station, KKWK. He had also worked for WESL and in the digital age he became the main attraction for New Black City, a web-only broadcast.
Wherever he went, he took his brash style and a band of faithful listeners with him.
A Consequential Rabble-rouser
Mr. Horton railed against “the white man” and “the system,” but he reserved his most scathing critiques for fellow blacks. When low black voter turnout sank a public school bond issue in 1987, he told the Post-Dispatch it was ''the most sickening thing I have ever seen from the black community.''
In 1988, he took the black middle class to task, telling the Post-Dispatch he didn’t think they had taken enough responsibility for lower classes.
''I'm not talking about a guy who moves into the middle class coming to Grand and Olive and giving out dollar bills on the street corner. But I am talking about doing things like helping the Mathews-Dickey tutoring program, either with dollars or with tutoring. I'm talking about giving back,” he said.
Throughout his career, his was the ear that many blacks sought in times of upheaval – like during the 1992 trial of the police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King. He was at the mic as the nation learned the verdict. The calls poured into all four lines as Mr. Horton worked his 6 to 10 a.m. show at WGNU.
His colleague, Charles Geer, told the Post-Dispatch that Mr. Horton sounded “somber and resigned” as he responded to the outpouring of angst. The verdict was “not guilty,” exactly the outcome Mr. Horton had anticipated.
Police brutality was one of the few things Mr. Horton said he feared. Although he had never been brutalized, he had been sued by a former St. Louis police officer. Joseph Ferrario, filed a lawsuit against Mr. Horton, claiming he called him a ''murderer and a racist'' on numerous occasions. In 1983, Ferrario had shot and killed a bystander during a chase in North St. Louis.
In his RFT profile he waxed philosophical about racism, asking rhetorically, "Will it ever change?" "The answer,” he said, “is yes -- it's going to get worse. I have less faith than I ever did."
The Other Onion Horton
The private man bore little resemblance to his public persona. Off the air, Mr. Horton was soft-spoken, even gentle. He smiled a lot. There was no evidence of the fire and brimstone he rained down on political figures, civic leaders and listeners.
Richard Lyons Horton was known simply as “Onion.” Shortly after cutting off his afro, he took the youth softball team he coached to see the movie Onionhead. One of the girls dubbed him “Onion” and it stuck.
He loved sports in general, high-school basketball in particular. He had broadcast high-school basketball with Edwards and for decades, he traveled with his son Allen across the U.S. to tournaments.
He was born July 5, 1936, in Searcy, Arkansas, the only child of Hazel and J.B. Horton. His parents separated when he was 9, and he went to live with his grandmother and an uncle in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was there he learned to perceive the world in black and white; unlike his mother, his grandmother and uncle refused to shield him from racism.
After graduating from high school in Fort Wayne at 16, he moved to St. Louis. In 1954, he enlisted in the Air Force and married Laurrein Horton-Davis; they had four children. They divorced in 1985.
Upon discharge, Mr. Horton returned to St. Louis and worked as a postal clerk for 15 years before finding his voice.
“Richard ‘Onion’ Horton was the voice of the black community,” declared St. Louis American Sports Columnist Maurice Scott.
Among his survivors are his wife, Karen Horton; two daughters, Loretta Horton of Chicago and Marlene Donelson of St. Louis, and two sons, Richard Horton Jr. and Allen Horton, both of University City, and eight grandchildren.
Visitation will take place from 9-10 a.m. on Friday, December 2 with funeral services immediately following at Friendly Temple M.B. Church, 5515 Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., St. Louis. The burial will take place at Jefferson Barracks. A memorial service will be held 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10 at the Omega Center at 3900 Goodfellow Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63120.