Actor and author Nichelle Nichols, 89, died July 30, 2022 in Silver City NM of heart failure. Nichols was best known for her portrayal of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura in the original series of Star Trek (1966-69) and subsequent film projects. She was one of the first Black women to have a major role on a network television program, and had a profound influence on US culture. She was also an occasional author, co-writing Star Trek story “Surprise!” (1978, with Myrna Culbreath & Sondra Marshak), collaborating on SF novels Saturn’s Child (1995, with Margaret Wander Bonanno) and Saturna’s Quest (2002, with Jim Meechan), and writing memoir Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories (1994).
Grace Dell Nichols was born December 28, 1932 in Robbins IL and grew up in Chicago. She began using the name Nichelle as a young teenager. She studied ballet and got her start as a singer and dancer at a nightclub during high school, where Duke Ellington saw her, and subsequently hired her to perform with his orchestra on tour. She went on to perform in musical theater in the ’50s, had small film roles, and first appeared on TV in 1963, appearing on several programs before her breakthrough Star Trek role.
Nichols often told the story of attending an event where she met Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., who described himself as her “biggest fan” and urged her to continue her role on Star Trek, because having a Black character treated with dignity and occupying a position of power was important; she quoted him as saying, “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should be seen every day.” In 1977, Nichols began working with NASA to help recruit women and minority people for training in spaceflight, and was widely credited with furthering the cause of diversity in space exploration.
Nichols was married and divorced twice. She is survived by her son.