Nichelle Nichols, who became a role model for Black actresses playing the role of Lt. Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, died Saturday at the age of 89. Her son announced her death on Facebook Sunday.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” Kyle Johnson wrote on Nichols’ official page. “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.”
When she was cast in 1966 to play the USS Enterprise’s translator and communications officer, she was one of the first Black actresses cast in a prominent TV role. During the brief series, she famously locked lips with co-star William Shatner in one of the first interracial kisses broadcast in the US.
Nichols started her career in the early ’60s performing in plays and musicals, modeling, and even singing with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. Then, producer Gene Roddenberry came along, offering her a guest role in his first television series, The Lieutenant.
A few years later, in 1966, Roddenberry cast her in Star Trek as the Enterprise’s comms officer, a groundbreaking role cast in the the middle of the civil rights movement.
She tried to quit the show after one season to return to Broadway, but she reconsidered after meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. After King confessed to being a Trekkie, he made her see the importance of having her in that spaceship as a role model for women and people of color everywhere.
“I think it was a moment in which I really realized not so much who I am but where I was going, and it felt very good, it felt like in a rush kinda to get there,” Nichols said, recalling the pivotal moment that make her realize the importance of Nyota Uhura. Nichols stayed on the show until the series was canceled in 1969.
After the show was canceled, Nichols helped NASA recruit women and minorities to be astronaut candidates and was able to sign up Guion Bluford, the first Black astronaut, and Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut (among others). Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to travel in space, has cited Nichols as one of her inspirations.
Nichols reprised the role of Uhura in six Star Trek films between 1979 and 1991, with a promotion to commander, along with fellow original cast members Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and George Takei.
Remembering Nichelle Nichols
Fans, peers and loved ones, as well as former crewmates, remembered Nichols on social media over the weekend. “We lived long and prospered together,” said actor George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek.
The White House and NASA also issued statements celebrating the life and legacy of the renowned actress.
“In Nichelle Nichols, our nation has lost a trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “Our nation is forever indebted to inspiring artists like Nichelle Nichols, who show us a future where unity, dignity, and respect are cornerstones of every society.”
NASA said in a tweet that Nichols was a “trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible.”
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