Nichelle Nichols, the actress whose role as communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek revolutionized television by featuring a Black woman in a position of authority—as well as sharing the first kiss between a Black woman and white man on American network television—died Saturday at age 89.
“Dear Friends, Fans, Colleagues, World, I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” Johnson wrote. “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.”
He added, “Live Long and Prosper.”
Nichols’ kiss with William Shatner in “Plato’s Children”—episode 10 of Season 3—was a landmark moment in television history when it aired on November 22, 1968.
However, Nichols’ role in revolutionizing the portrayal of people of color in Hollywood went far beyond the kiss, as Lt. Uhura was an outstanding officer who took charge of the USS Enterprise (NCC 1701) whenever the need arose. In fact, Uhura was assigned to the original Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike in 2259, six years before James T. Kirk ever took command of the Starfleet flagship. Starting as a cadet on the Enterprise, Uhura rose through the ranks to Lieutenant, to Lt. Commander and then to Commander throughout the franchise’s six decades.
Not only was Nichols one of the first Black women to portray someone in a leadership role on American television, she is almost certainly the first Black woman ever depicted as both a military and scientific leader in the medium.
Nichols nearly left the show, however, after the first season to pursue a career on Broadway. But, as she said in an Archive of American Television interview, the recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made her decide to keep Trekin’. Dr. King approached her at a fundraising dinner and spoke to her about the role she was in, the impact she had, and why she needed to stay.
“For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day,” Nichols quoted Dr. King as saying. “As intelligent, quality, [and] beautiful… people who can go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors—who are, in this day, and yet don’t see it on television until now.”
Along with her lifelong film and television career, Nichols also worked with NASA to encourage Black people to become astronauts. Nichols remained a supporter of the space program for decades, and doctor and engineer Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to go to space, cited Star Trek as a prominent reason behind her decision to become an astronaut.
Nichols’ fans and colleagues expressed their grief at her passing on social media, along with their gratitude for all the lives she touched.
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.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) July 31, 2022
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. Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you. pic.twitter.com/KhUf4YM6pX
— Lynda Carter (@RealLyndaCarter) July 31, 2022
Nichelle Nichols was The First. She was a trailblazer who navigated a very challenging trail with grit, grace, and a gorgeous fire we are not likely to see again.
— Kate Mulgrew (@TheKateMulgrew) July 31, 2022
We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars. pic.twitter.com/pmQaKDb5zw
— NASA (@NASA) July 31, 2022
My favorite photo of Dad and Nichelle Nichols on set. The importance of Nichelle's legacy cannot be over-emphasized. She was much loved and will be missed. pic.twitter.com/1zlTd4F9BD
— Adam Nimoy (@adam_nimoy) July 31, 2022
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