Nichelle Nichols, an actress, and vocalist best known for playing Lieutenant Uhura, Star Trek’s communications officer, passed away on 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.”
As Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original TV series, Nichelle Nichols made history as one of the first Black women to appear in a major television series. Her name is derived from the Swahili word for “freedom,” Uhuru.
“Here I was projecting in the 23rd century what should have been quite simple,” Nichelle 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.”
When Uhura and Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) exchanged a passionate kiss in 1968’s “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode, Nichelle Nichols made headlines. One of the first such television moments, their interracial kiss on the lips was revolutionary.
Grace Dell Nichols was born Nichols in the Chicago suburb where her father served as mayor. She spent her formative years performing musical theatre, singing, and dancing. Kicks and Co., a 1961 musical that subtly mocked Playboy magazine, gave her a big break. She featured in the Chicago stock company’s production of Carmen Jones and appeared in Porgy and Bess in New York.
‘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.”
She attended an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills that weekend and was requested to meet Martin Luther King, Jr., who claimed to be her biggest fan.
“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.’”
Nichelle Nichols – Career and Legacy
Despite being a seasoned Broadway performer who refined her craft in shows like “Kicks & Co.” and “Porgy and Bess,” Nichols’ “big break” came from her role on “Star Trek,” where she made a name for herself as “Lt. Uhura,” whose name is derived from a Swahili word that means “freedom,” according to Variety.
Uhura’s command was elevated over time in addition to the historic “interracial kiss” she enjoyed with William Shatner (the actor who played Captain Kirk). Uhura was elevated to lieutenant commander in the 1979 movie. Uhura was a full commander by the time “Star Trek III: The Wrath of Khan” premiered in 1982.
The message was immediately obvious: Black women deserved positions of leadership, both on Earth and in the Final Frontier.
Even though Nichelle Nichols has an unmatched acting career, particularly in the sci-fi industry, CNN feels that the amount of Black astronauts who have traveled to The Final Frontier since the airing of the original “Star Trek” is her greatest legacy.
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