Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols who portrayed Lt. Nyota Uhura, has died. She was 89.
According to an Instagram post on Sunday, her son, Kyle Johnson, wrote that she died of natural causes. She had been treated for dementia in her 80s.
Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols Has Died At 89
“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,” Johnson wrote. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Nichols’s casting as a lead character in a position of authority was historic for a TV show that first aired in 1966. Her character’s kiss with William Shatner’s Captain James Kirk also broke ground for being one of the first interracial kisses ever aired on television.
After the original series ended, Nichols worked with NASA to recruit women and people of color as astronauts and continued to act, appearing onstage and in films like Snow Dogs and the TV series The Young and the Restless. And throughout her life, she remained devoted to Star Trek and was a fixture at fan conventions well into her 80s.
“Every time I sat down at my console on the bridge of the Enterprise, I felt that I was in the twenty-third century, that I was Uhura. The promise of that imaginary universe was real to me,” Nichols wrote in her 1994 autobiography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. “I am still very proud of Uhura: proud of who she was (or will be) and what she represented, not only in her time but in ours, and in those of people who will discover Star Trek decades from now.”
Grace Nichols was born in 1932 in the Chicago suburb of Robbins, Illinois. And she knew from a year young age that she wanted to be onstage.
“Even before I could walk, I could sing,” she wrote in Beyond Uhura. She started taking ballet classes at age 7. As a teenager, she danced at the College Inn, a famous venue in downtown Chicago, where she caught the eye of Duke Ellington. She later toured with the jazz legend.
Her break came when she was a dancer in the 1959 musical Porgy and Bess starring Sidney Poitier. Five years later, she made her television debut playing the fiancé of a Black Marine in an episode of The Lieutenant, the first show produced by Gene Roddenberry, who went on to create Star Trek.
When Nichols first auditioned for Star Trek, her character had not yet been created, so she read for the part of Spock; According to her autobiography, it was only after she signed on to the show that Nichols and Roddenberry conceived Uhura. Her name was derived from Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom and the title of the book Nichols was reading when she auditioned.
“I said well why don’t you do an alliteration of it and soften the end with an ‘a’ and it will be Uhura,” Nichols recalled in an interview years later. “[Roddenberry] said, ‘That’s it. That’s your name.’”
At first, she was frustrated with her lines getting cut and the racism she faced on the studio lot, she famously almost quit the series after one season to pursue theater jobs. But she decided to stick with it after a chance encounter with Martin Luther King Jr., who convinced Nichols of the significance of her role to the Black community.
“He said, ‘For the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘… Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed.’
“And at that moment the world tilted for me,” Nichols said.
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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