Nichelle Nichols, Leading Lady of the Star Trek Universe, Dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols was a pioneer for women and people of color in Hollywood, and Starfleet’s Lt. Nyota Uhura was an inspiration for all

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.

She is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson, who announced Nichols’ death on Facebook and on the official Nichelle Nichols site. Johnson said she died of natural causes on Saturday evening.

“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.”

(L-R) Actors George Takei, Stephen Collins, Majel Barrett, Persis Khambatta, Grace Lee Whitney, William Shatner, James Doohan, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, directed by Robert Wise. (Photo by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

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.

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