By Vince Wilson II
Nichelle Nichols, the actress best known for her culture-shifting role as Lt. Nyota Uhura in “Star Trek,” has died.
Nichols died July 30 at a hospital in Silver City, New Mexico at the age of 89, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing a family friend. She had suffered a stroke in 2015.
Best known for her role in the “Star Trek” series, Nichols was a trail blazer. Prior to her role, Black woman had rarely been portrayed as anything other than a maid or housekeeper, much less a communications officer on a space ship in the 23rd Century.
Born in Robbins, Illinois, south of Chicago in a family with 10 siblings, Nichols stood out early as a performer, dancer and singer, studying at the famed Chicago Ballet School as a young girl.
Her father, a factory worker, would eventually become mayor of a Chicago suburb.
She was discovered in her teens by band leaders Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, touring with their bands throughout the country and Europe. Her big break came in 1959 when she was cast with Sammy Davis Jr. in “Porgy and Bess.”
But “Star Trek” made her a star to “trekkies” everywhere. One of her biggest fans was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In an interview with the Television Academy for its Archive of American Television, Nichols said she was going to leave “Star Trek” after its first season to perform in a Broadway-bound musical. She even handed show creator Gene Roddenberry a letter of resignation.
“He said, ‘Take the weekend … and think about it,” Nichols said years later.
Over that weekend she attended an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills when an organizer informed her “her biggest fan” was in attendance and was desperate to meet her.
“I thought it was a ‘trekkie,’ and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room and whoever the fan was had to wait because there was Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face,” Nichols said.
“He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that ‘Star Trek’ was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch.”
After telling King about her plans to leave the series to take the role in the musical, “I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You cannot, you cannot. … For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing, dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers.
“If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a Black role, and is not a female role; he can fill it with anybody, even an alien. At that moment, the world tilted for me. I knew I was something else.”
After “Star Trek,” she formed the Women In Motion, a nonprofit that would expand into an astronaut recruitment project through her partnership with NASA.
Her program would be instrumental in attracting women and people of color to become astronauts, including Mae Jamison, the first Black American woman in space.
Whoopi Goldberg spoke about the life-altering influence of seeing Nichols for the first time, recalling, “If you look at any of the shows prior to ‘Star Trek,’ we were not there. Nichols was really instrumental in making me believe I could be on TV.”
Nichols eventually found her way back to her true love, the stage, performing a one-woman cabaret-style show called “Reflections” in 1990, where she sang as 14 different Black singers, showing off her four-octave vocal range.
After receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992, she continued to be a mainstay in pop culture acting in various TV shows from “The Young and The Restless” to “The Simpsons.”
Flowers were placed on her Walk of Fame star Aug. 1.
President Joe Biden was among those mourning Nichols’ death, saying in a statement, “In Nichelle Nichols, our nation has lost a trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women. With a defining dignity and authority, she helped tell a central story that reimagined scientific pursuits and discoveries.
“And she continued this legacy by going on to work with NASA to empower generations of Americans from every background to reach for the stars and beyond. 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.”
Her son said there would be a private funeral service for family members and close friends.
City News Service contributed to this story.