Nichelle Nichols, the star trek actor whose role as an on-screen lieutenant on the bridge of a starship was a groundbreaking example of representation for Black Americans in Hollywood, died on Saturday (30 July). She was 89.
Her death was confirmed on Instagram on Sunday (31 July) by the actor’s son Kyle Johnson.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” he wrote. “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,” added Johnson.
Nichols rose to fame when she was cast for the 1966 space adventure series star trek as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the ship’s communications officer. The role was significant for many reasons: It was one of the first major roles for a Black woman in a US television series, it was among the first portrayals of a Black woman in a military-style command role in any format, and it would later culminates in one of the first on-screen kisses between a white actor, William Shatner, and a Black co-star.
Her time in that role only lasted a few years, with the show being canceled in 1969, but its significance would last for decades. She was even reportedly persuaded by legendary civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King Jr to remain in the role during the series’ short-lived run. Nichols would later go on to reprise the role of Lt Uhura in a number of star trek movies including The Search for Spock.
In conjunction with her star trek career, Nichols would partner with NASA, the US space agency, in a bid to recruit more women and people of color to its astronaut and sciences programs. The effort led to the recruitment of Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut.
She spoke about how her work on star trek had led to the expansion of NASA’s efforts to recruit women during an interview with StarTrek.com in 2012.
“[My] legacy continues into the modern astronaut corps, where sex and color no longer matter… as it should be,” she said. “I continue to be proud to have been chosen to make those first women and minorities [in the space program] a reality.”
In her later years, she would make a semi-retirement from appearances at fan conventions where she and other members of the original cast were treated like royalty.
She made an appearance at the Los Angeles Comic Con as recently as 2021.