Trailblazing actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, who broke color barriers and stereotypes when she played Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original “Star Trek” television series and spin-off films, has died. She was 89.
Nichols’ son, Kyle Johnson, announced the news of his mother’s passing in a statement on her website.
“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,” Johnson wrote of his mother’s July 31 death. “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,” Johnson’s statement continued. “I, and the rest of our family, would appreciate your patience and forbearance as we grieve her loss until we can recover sufficiently to speak further. Her services will be for family members and the closest of her friends and we request that her and our privacy be respected.”
When Nichols made her prime-time television debut, it marked the first time a Black woman played the lead on a show that did not subscribe to common stereotypes. Nichols played the communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise.
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According to CNN, Dr. Martin Luther King said Nichols played “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.”
In a past interview, Nichols said King also persuaded her not to quit the role after the first season when she shared with him her plans to do so at a civil rights fundraiser in the 1960s.
“There’s someone here who said he is your biggest fan and he’s desperate to meet you. He really wants to meet you,” Nichols recalled. “So, I’m looking for a young man who’s a Star Trek fan. I turn and instead of a fan, there’s this face the world knows with this beautiful smile on it. And I remember thinking whoever that fan is will have to wait because Dr. King, Dr. Martin Luther King, my leader, is walking towards me.”
After sharing her plans to leave the show, Nichols said King told her, “This is a God-given opportunity to change the face of television, change the way we think. We are no longer second-class, third-class citizens. He (Roddenberry) had to do it in the 23rd century but it’s the 20th century that’s watching.’”
Nichols also made history when she and Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner, shared the first onscreen interracial kiss in U.S. television history. It was a scene Nichols said “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another.”
Nichols inspired many through her role as Uhara – a name which she picked for her character, stemming from Uhuru, which meant freedom in Swahili.
Among them was a 9-year-old Whoopi Goldberg, who reportedly told her mother, “Come quick! There’s a Black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ after seeing Nichols on Star Trek.
After Star Trek ended in 1969, Nichols continue to blaze trails when she turned her attention to helping diversify the ranks of NASA, which she’s criticized for not hiring women, Black people and other people of color.
The agency hired her as a recruiter in 1970 and she was responsible for bringing on the first Black woman astronaut, Mae Jemison; the first woman U.S. astronaut, Sally Ride; and the first Black NASA chief, Charlie Bolden.
Born Grace Dell Nichols in 1932 near Chicago, Nichols changed her name to Nichelle in her teens. A gifted singer with a four-octave range, Nichols also toured with jazz greats Duke Ellington and Lionel before her acting career took off, Reuters reported.
Tributes poured in for Nichols after her death was announced.
“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,” tweeted George Takei, who co-starred as USS Enterprise’s helmsman Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek alongside Nichols. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
“We lived long and prospered together,” Takei wrote in a follow-up tweet that included a photo of he and Nichols together doing the famous Vulcan salute.
“I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world,” Shatner tweeted. “I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family.”
“We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible,” NASA tweeted. “She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”
“Representation matters. Excellence in representation matters even more. Thank you, #NichelleNichols. Rest well, ancestor,” Bernice King tweeted emphasized by a heart emoji.
“One of my most treasured photos – Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior and tremendous actor. Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars,” wrote Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
“Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation. Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of Black women and paved the way for a better future for all women in media,” Lynda Carter tweeted. “Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you.”
“The legendary Nichelle Nichols has died at 89. Her son Kyle announced the news of her passing. Nichols was a trailblazer,” Yashar Ali wrote. “She was one of the first Black actors to play a major role on a television series and the type of role she had on Star Trek was groundbreaking.”
One user noted Nichols died the same weekend as NBA hall-of-famer Bill Russell.