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Actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, best known as Star Trek‘s communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, died Saturday night in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89 years old.
“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” her son Kyle Johnson wrote on the website Uhura.com. “Her light, however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration.”
Nichols was one of the first Black women featured in a major television series, and her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original TV series was groundbreaking: an African American woman whose name came from Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom.”
“Here I was projecting in the 23rd century what should have been quite simple,” Nichols told NPR in 2011. “We’re on a starship. I was head communications officer. Fourth in command on a starship. They didn’t see this as being, oh, it doesn’t happen til the 23rd century. Young people and adults saw it as now.”
In 1968, Nichols made headlines when Uhura shared an intimate kiss with Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) in an episode called “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Their interracial kiss on the lips was revolutionary, one of the first such moments on TV.
Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in a Chicago suburb where her father was the mayor. She grew up singing and dancing, aspiring to star in musical theater. She got her first break in the 1961 musical Kicks and Co., a thinly veiled satire of Playboy magazine. She was the star of the Chicago stock company production of Carmen Jones, and in New York performed in Porgy and Bess.
‘To me, the highlight and the epitome of my life as a singer and actor and a dancer/choreographer was to star on Broadway,” she told NPR in 2011, adding that as her popularity on Star Trek grew, she was beginning to get other offers. “I decided I was going to leave, go to New York and make my way on the Broadway stage.”
Nichols said she went to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, and announced she was quitting. “He was very upset about it. And he said, take the weekend and think about what I am trying to achieve here in this show. You’re an integral part and very important to it.”
So that weekend, she went to an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills and was asked to meet a man who said he was her number one fan: Martin Luther King, Jr.
“He complimented me on the manner in which I’d created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, ‘Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you.’ He said, ‘no, no, no. No, you don’t understand. We don’t need you … to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.’ So, I said to him, ‘thank you so much. And I’m going to miss my co-stars.'”
“His face got very, very serious,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘what are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘well, I told Gene just yesterday that I’m going to leave the show after the first year because I’ve been offered… And he stopped me and said: ‘You cannot do that.’ I was stunned. He said, ‘don’t you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch.’ I was speechless.”
Nichols returned to the series, which lasted until 1969. She also reprised her famous role in six subsequent feature films, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where Uhura was promoted to commander.
For years, Nichols also helped diversify the real-life space program, helping to recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Guion Bluford, and others. And she had her own science foundation, Women in Motion.
“Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation,” tweeted actress Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman on TV in the 1970s. “Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of Black women and paved the way for a better future for all women in media. Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you.”
George Takei, who costarred on Star Trek as helmsman Hikaru Sulu tweeted: “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise,” her wrote. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
He also posted a photo of his longtime friend, both of them flashing the Vulcan greeting, and these words: “We lived long and prospered together.”
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