Nichelle Nichols, who became an icon playing Nyota Uhura, the communications officer for the USS Enterprise on Star Trek, passed away Saturday evening in Silver City, New Mexico. Nichols was 89.
Nichols’s son Kyle Johnson, posted a statement on his mother’s official Instagram account saying, “I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years. 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.”
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US President Joe Biden issued a statement on Sunday in memory of Nichols, saying, “In Nichelle Nichols, our nation has lost a trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women…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…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.”
The official Twitter account for Star Trek also mourned Nichols’s passing, saying, We’re deeply saddened to report the passing of Nichelle Nichols – a trailblazer, an inspiration, and so much more. She will be deeply missed.”
We’re deeply saddened to report the passing of Nichelle Nichols – a trailblazer, an inspiration, and so much more. She will be deeply missed. https://t.co/iBwyOPaxTP
— Star Trek (@StarTrek) July 31, 2022
Nichols’ role on Star Trek served as an inspiration to many, including Whoopi Goldberg who remembered seeing Nichols as a nine-year-old and saying to her mother, “Come quick! There’s a Black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’“ Goldberg later appeared as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Nichols also made television history when in 1968 she and Star Trek co-star William Shatner shared one of the first interracial kisses to be aired on network television, in the episode Plato’s Stepchildren.
I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. 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. Bill
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) July 31, 2022
Following the cancellation of Star Trek, Nichols parlayed her television fame into a recruitment role for NASA. Through her company, Women in Motion, Nichols was responsible for recruiting many women and people of colour into the NASA space program. Among her recruits were Dr Sally Ride, Dr Judith Resnik, Dr Ronald McNair, Dr Mae Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut, and Charlie Bolden the first Black NASA chief.
Nichols remained a staunch advocate for space research and exploration throughout the remainder of her life.
Nichols was also an advocate for the LGBTQ community, in part through her to her lifelong friendship with Star Trek co-star and out actor George Takei.
Appearing at a news conference in support of the LGBTQ film Tru Loved, in which she appeared, Nichols said, “Our laws are supposed to protect everyone…people should be treated fairly and that’s no matter who they are or how society chooses to define them and to end homophobia and discrimination we’ve got to stop it in its tracks before it begins.”
Nichols also appeared in an ad for the NoH8 campaign, saying, “Everybody has the right to live long and prosper with the person they love.”
Nichol’s close friend George Takei tweeted, “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.”
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
Lynda Carter tweeted, “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.”
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
NASA tweeted, “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.”
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
Star Trek: Discovery star Wilson Cruz tweeted, “Before we understood how much Representation Matters Nichelle Nichols modelled it for us. With her very presence & her grace she shone a light on who we as people of color are & inspired us to reach for our potential. Rest well glittering diamond in the sky.”
Before we understood how much #RepresentationMatters #NichelleNichols modeled it for us. With her very presence & her grace she shone a light on who we as people of color are & inspired us to reach for our potential. Rest well glittering diamond in the sky https://t.co/DmeLFbg825
— Wilson Cruz (@wcruz73) July 31, 2022
Born in 1932, Nichols started her career at 15 when she sang for Duke Ellington. She later segued into bit roles in films like Mr Buddwing and Made In Paris before she was cast on Star Trek.
Nichols later revealed that she and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had an affair which lasted several years before he married Majel Barrett, who played Nurse Christine Chapel.
Nichols also said that it was Dr Martin Luther King who stopped her from quitting Star Trek after the first season.
In an interview with NPR, Nichols recalled, ”He complimented me on the manner in which I’d created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, ‘Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you.’ He said, ‘no, no, no. No, you don’t understand … You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.’”
“I said, ‘Well, I told Gene just yesterday that I’m going to leave the show after the first year because I’ve been offered…’ — and he stopped me and said: ‘You cannot do that.’ And I was stunned. He said, ‘Don’t you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.’ He says, ‘Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?’ I was speechless.'”
In 1992 Nichols was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 2016 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
Nichols’s other credits included the cult classic Truck Turner, Snow Dogs, Are We There Yet, Heroes and an Emmy-nominated appearance in the Young and the Restless.
Nichols reportedly passed away from natural causes though had suffered from ill health for some time including suffering a stroke in 2015 and a later diagnosis for dementia in 2018.