Nichelle Nichols, the actress known across the galaxy as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek, died on Saturday, July 30. She was 89.
Nichols' son, Kyle Johnson, confirmed her passing on her official social media accounts, writing, "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," Johnson concluded. "Live Long and Prosper."
Born Grace Dell in Robbins, Illinois on December 28, 1932, Nichols began her career at age 15, touring as a dancer and singer with jazz legend Duke Ellington. In 1964, she landed one of her first acting roles on the television series, The Lieutenant, playing the fiancée of a Black Marine. NBC refused to air the episode because it dealt with race. The show ended after one season and its creator, Gene Roddenberry, went on to create his next series: Star Trek.
Star Trek provided Nichols her breakout role as communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura. When the series premiered in 1966, she broke a major race barrier by becoming one of the first Black women to play a lead role on primetime television.
One of her earliest fans included a young Whoopi Goldberg, who would later play Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Goldberg recalled telling her mother, "There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!"
After the first season of Star Trek, Nichols considered leaving the series, until she met a notable fan at an NAACP function: Martin Luther King Jr. He told her he and his family were faithful viewers of the show, largely because of Uhura. "Don't you realize how important your presence, your character is?" King told her, according to Nichols' autobiography. "For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people — as we should be."
Nichols continued her adventures aboard the USS Enterprise across six feature films: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).
Upon news of her passing, former co-stars William Shatner (who played Capt. Kirk) and George Takei (Sulu) were among those who paid tribute.
"I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle," Shatner tweeted. "She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world. I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family."
"Today, my heart is heavy," Takei wrote. "My eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend."
Following in Nichols footsteps, Zoe Saldaña assumed the role of Uhura in 2009's Star Trek movie reboot. On Instagram, Saldaña hailed Nichols as "a unique artist who was ahead of her time always."
"She's an icon, an activist and most importantly an amazing woman, who blazed a trail that has shown so many how to see women of color in a different light," she wrote. "Meeting Nichelle was truly a very special moment in my life... I knew I had big shoes to fill when I was chosen to play Uhura, and Nichelle made me feel safe, told me to play her with all the confidence in the world. My hope is that we continue to keep her memory alive by celebrating her amazing body of work, and by spreading the message of peace and equality amongst all people. She lived a long, impactful life and not only prospered, but helped so many others prosper too."
When Star Trek ended, Nichols worked with NASA to recruit women and minorities to become astronauts. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space, cited Uhura and Star Trek as early inspirations. Vice President Kamala Harris reflected on Nichols' impact, saying, "She inspired generations of young leaders to pursue a career in STEM and space. Her remarkable legacy is one that I and so many others are touched by."
President Joe Biden, meanwhile, called Nichols a "trailblazer" who "redefined what it is possible for Black Americans and women."
"During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she shattered stereotypes to become the first Black woman to act in a major role on a primetime television show with her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek," he said in a statement. "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."
If Uhura is the role that should come to define Nichols' legacy, the actress felt nothing but pride.
"Every time I sat down at my console on the bridge of the Enterprise, I felt that I was in the 23rd century, that I was Uhura," she wrote in her 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."
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