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Nichelle Nichols, Black actress who changed Hollywood perceptions, dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols
Nichelle Nichols

A Robbins, Illinois, native who attended Englewood High School and went on to break entertainment norms passed away on Saturday, July 30. Nichelle Nichols, who was widely known for crossing barriers in the Star Trek universe, was remembered far and wide this past weekend.

Kyle Johnson, Nichols’ son reported her passing at the age of 89: “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.”

A message posted on the StarTrek Twitter account read: “We’re deeply saddened to report the passing of Nichelle Nichols – a trailblazer, an inspiration, and so much more. She will be deeply missed.”

Nichols joined the cast of “Star Trek: The Original Series” as  Lt. Nyota Uhura. But it wasn’t smooth sailing for the prime time television show in the racial climate of 1966. Her role was one of prominence and not one of a domestic.

Nichelle Nichols
A 1967 PHOTO of Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura

As recently reported by Arielle Kass for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “It was 1967, and reviews for the first season of Star Trek were not great. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura, had bigger issues with the show. She found it demoralizing to see her lines cut and cut again. She had to deal with racist insults off set, as well as from executives who conspired to keep her from seeing her fan mail.”

Around this time Nichols was set on leaving the show. But the late Dr. Martin Luther King intervened. According to Kass, Dr. King told Nichols: “You cannot and you must not. Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? … Don’t you see? This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first non-stereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground.

“… For the first time,” he continued, “the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people — as we should be.”

As history reveals, Nichols remained on the show and even engaged in what was at that time the first interracial kiss with her white cast mate William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk.

Nichelle Nichols
GEORGE TAKEI AND Nichelle Nichols pose for a photo during an industry event. (Photo
from Takei’s Twitter account).

Another cast member George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu, wrote on Twitter: 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.”

Nichols was a voice in an animated version of the show, appeared in about a dozen Star Trek films and reportedly was instrumental in recruiting Guion Bluford to apply to NASA’s space program. Eventually, as well, Mae Jemison became the first Black female astronaut.

Born Grace Dell Nichols, acting wasn’t her only profession; in her early teens she performed as a singer in local Chicago clubs.

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