“I’m a fan of the fans. I love them. They’re fabulous. I love being around them. I love their madness and their caring. I love watching them take off for a weekend, don the costumes, and become characters from the 23rd century and beyond. I thank the fans for giving us–me–so much support and love. I want them to know I love them. They will always be my friends. I’ll see the fans, always. They can rest assured of that.”
Those words epitomize for millions the actress Nichelle Nichols, whom generations of fans came to affectionately know as, “Uhura” in reference to her iconic and trailblazing role on the original “Star Trek” television series.
On July 30th, 2022, Nichelle passed away at the age of 89.
Entering into the industry in her mid 30’s, much of Grace Dell Nichols’ (as she was born) acting work came by way of Broadway making her mark as one of the few Black actresses in the legendary circuit. Although she was featured on the cover of the Black-owned Ebony magazine, it was her role as Lt. Uhura in the original 1966-69 Star Trek series that was her claim to fame, and made her name a household word. Along with a handful of Black actresses on television, such as Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll, Nichelle more than held her own against many actresses of her time, regardless of color. One of the central reasons for Nichols’ legendary status was that her role on Star Trek was one of the first non-stereotypical roles for Black actresses on television. In addition, she and her on-screen Captain (played by William Shatner) shared what is widely credited as the first bi-racial kiss in television history.
Despite the many accolades and fanfare concerning her legendary role, the road was never easy.
At one point at a challenging time during the show’s run, Nichelle decided to leave the show, citing some of her reasoning as, “belonging to stage and movies- not television.” The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, asked her to take some time to reconsider her decision. According to an interview with Startrek.com, she decided to attend an NAACP fundraiser, and was approached by one of the organizers at her table. “Ms. Nichols,” the young man began. “..I hate to bother you just as you’re sitting down to dinner, but there’s someone here who wants very much to meet you. And he said to tell you that he is your biggest fan.” She replied, “Whoever that fan is, whoever that Trekkie is, it’ll have to wait, because I have to meet Dr. Martin Luther King.”
To Nichols’ surprise, Dr. King was the fan to which the young man was referring. After learning that she was contemplating leaving the show, he spoke these words that she never forgot. In fact, they changed her mind about resigning: “Don’t you see what this man [Gene Roddenberry] is doing, who has written this? This is the future. He has established us as we should be seen. Three hundred years from now, we are here. We are marching. And this is the first step. When we see you, we see ourselves, and we see ourselves as intelligent and beautiful and proud.”
She realized that night that regardless of the reason, her role was too important to leave.
Her decision to remain set the stage for the rest of her life. As a result, her subsequent landmarks are many:
- Nichols was one of the first black actresses to portray a character on a television series, and science-fiction series, who was treated the same as characters of other races. Thus, to all Star Trek fans, the television series and films that followed set the standard for multiculturalism (where people of different races, ethnicities and genders are integrated and a sense of equality coexists).
- She became the first black (man or woman) to place her handprints in front of Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, along with the rest of her original Star Trek cast.
- Nichelle received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6633 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on January 9, 1992.
- From the late 1970s until 1987, she was employed by NASA and in charge of astronaut recruits and hopefuls. Most of the recruits she launched were minority candidates of different races and/or ethnicities, as well as gender, like Guion Bluford (the first Black male astronaut), Sally Ride (the first American female astronaut), Judith A. Resnik (one of the original female astronauts recruited by NASA, who perished during the launch of the Challenger on January 28, 1986), and Ron McNair (another victim of the Challenger disaster). She resided in Houston, Texas during her years as a Johnson Space Center employee.
- Former NASA astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison was inspired by Nichelle when she decided to become the first Black female astronaut. Jemison was a huge fan of Star Trek (1966).
- Nichols was awarded the Lifetime Career Award at the 2016 Saturn Awards for science fiction entertainment, the musical arts, and her tireless support of NASA and space exploration.
Throughout her life and career, Nichols was a woman to inspire all women, never forgetting the ceilings she broke, the doors she opened or the trails she blazed.
While there have been countless Star Trek films and series, and even a new actress playing the renowned role that she originated, Grace Dell Nichols will always be Lt. Uhura to us. Thank you, Nichelle, for going where no Black woman had gone before.
At Seeking Educational Excellence, we believe the sky is not the limit. Like many before her, Nichelle Nichols had limited her dreams until possibility was presented to her. With processes and plans in place, we are uniquely positioned to change the future for a new generation of dreamers.
Seeking Educational Excellence. Inspiration, not indoctrination.