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Nichelle Nichols was a trailblazer who broke the glass ceiling for Black women in Hollywood

Nichols worked with the series' creator to imbue Uhura with authority, a striking departure from the roles Black women were given at the time.

Nichelle Nichols was a trailblazer who broke the glass ceiling for Black women in Hollywood
Cover Image Source: Actress Nichelle Nichols arrives at the premiere of Neon's "Colossal" at the Vista Theatre on April 4, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Nichelle Nichols, the "Star Trek" legend whose role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the sci-fi franchise's original 1960s TV series and movies helped break ground on TV for Black women, has died at age 89. Announcing her death in a statement shared to Nichols' official site on Sunday, her son, Kyle Johnson, wrote: "I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years. Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. 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. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all."


Born Grace Dell Nichols near Chicago in 1932, Nichols only had a handful of acting credits when she was cast in "Star Trek." According to The Washington Post, she made her professional debut at the College Inn, a high-society Chicago dinner club, at the age of 14 after training in classical ballet and Afro-Cuban dance. Among the performers she met during that time was Duke Ellington, who was reportedly so impressed by her performance—a tribute to the pioneering Black dancer Katherine Dunham—that he later took the newly re-christened Nichelle on tour with his traveling show as a dancer and singer.


In the late 1950s, Nichols moved to Los Angeles and landed a guest role in a Gene Roddenberry series, "The Lieutenant." Roddenberry remembered the actress when creating "Star Trek" and Nichols accepted the offer believing it would be a "nice steppingstone" to Broadway stardom. Little did she—or anyone at the time, for that matter—know the low-tech science-fiction show would go on to become a cultural touchstone and bring her enduring recognition. "(My agent said), 'They're doing 'Star Trek,' and I didn't know what a 'Star Trek' was," Nichols said in an interview with the Television Academy.


Nichols came up with the name Uhura while reading a 1962 novel by American author Robert Ruark titled Uhuru, which means "freedom" in Swahili. Although she suggested her character take the name, Roddenberry thought it was too harsh. "I said, 'Well, why don't you do an alteration of it, soften the end with an 'A,' and it'll be Uhura?'" Nichols recalled. "He said, 'That's it, that's your name! You named it; it's yours.'" She worked with the series creator to imbue Uhura with authority, a striking departure from the small roles—most often that of a domestic worker—that African-American women on TV were seen in.


Nichols stood out among the otherwise all-male officers on the bridge of the starship Enterprise with her character presented matter-of-factly as fourth in command, signifying a future where Blacks would enjoy full equality. The cultural impact of her playing a visible, non-stereotypical role in the show is perhaps unmatched. Actress Whoopi Goldberg has often recalled her reaction when watching "Star Trek" as an adolescent. "Come quick, come quick. There's a Black lady on television and she ain't no maid," she screamed to her family, Goldberg has said.




Although her role was unprecedented in television at the time, Nichols considered quitting during the first season after growing frustrated that her role had been reduced to little more than a "glorified telephone operator in space" who rarely got to say anything more than "hailing frequencies open, sir." Nichols revealed in interviews years later that she only reconsidered after meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP fundraiser. When the actress mentioned her plans to leave the show, Dr. King reportedly said "you can't. You're part of history."


"Because of Martin," Nichols said, "I looked at work differently. There was something more than just a job." She is also widely known for participating in one of the first interracial kisses on US television when her character kissed James T. Kirk—portrayed by White Canadian actor William Shatner—in a 1968 episode titled "Plato's Stepchildren." Speaking to CNN in 2014, Nichols said the kiss scene "changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another." Although "Star Trek" went off the air after a three-season run in 1969, but Nichols's continued association with Uhura at Trekkie conventions led to a NASA contract in 1977 to make the agency more diverse and help recruit women and minorities to the nascent space shuttle astronaut corps.


George Takei, who portrayed the USS Enterprise's helmsman Hikaru Sulu, posted a touching tribute to his co-star over the weekend. "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, and who passed today at age 89. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend," he tweeted. "We lived long and prospered together."


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