Nichelle Nichols, trailblazing ‘Star Trek’ actress, dead at 89

Photo: Getty Images North America

Nichelle Nichols, known for her infamous role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in Star Trek, died Saturday (July 30) in Silver City, New Mexico, according to Variety. She was 89.

Kyle Johnson, her son, says his mother died of “natural causes” on Facebook and Instagram Sunday (July 31). It was later confirmed to Variety by Gilbert Bell, Nichols’ longtime business partner, and talent manager.

“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” Johnson wrote on Nichols’ official social media. “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.”

He continues: “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all. I, and the rest of our family, would appreciate your patience and forbearance as we grieve her loss until we can recover sufficiently to speak further.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Nichelle Nichols (@nichellenicholsofficial)

Grace Dell Nichols was born to a Chicago family on December 28, 1932, being one of 10 children. For as long as she can remember, she’s always wanted to be an entertainer, especially an actress. She had a robust singing and theatre career before catching the attention of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who tapped Nichols to guest star in an episode of his first series, The Lieutenant (1964). Because the episode tackled racial prejudice, it was deemed too controversial and never aired.

Nichols made history when Star Trek first aired in 1966. Portraying communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise, she became the first Black woman to be featured in a major television series. It was also the first time a Black woman wasn’t portrayed in a stereotypical role, like a maid or nanny. Her bold and no-nonsense character would be a sterling example to Black children and adults on what’s possible in a segregated world.

Nichols says she was tempted to leave the popular science fiction show for a Broadway career, but civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to stay with Star Trek. Besides her role as Lieutenant Uhura, Nichols has made several fictional and guest appearances in many movies and TV shows, including Futurama, Scooby-Doo, Heroes, and The Young and the Restless.

Star Trek: The Original Series
Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura in the STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES episode, “Arena.” Original air date January 19, 1967.Photo: Getty Images

Nichols isn’t just known for her work in Hollywood and media. The trailblazer is also known for her vigorous recruitment of racial minorities and women into NASA’s astronaut program decades ago. Her activism started with written columns criticizing the space agency for not having enough Black people and women in their programs. Nichols also started her own consulting firm, Women in Motion, to further her goals of diversifying the space-oriented workforce.

Women in Motion brought in over 8,000 applicants to NASA, including women and people of color. Several of them went on to make history, as well, such as Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Guion Stewart Bluford Jr., the first Black American to reach the final frontier.

Nichols’ outstanding achievements would be recognized with a public service award from NASA. Her diversity efforts were also detailed in a 2021 documentary called Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA.

The groundbreaking actress suffered a stroke in 2015 at her Los Angeles home and was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. Amid her medical woes, she was also at the heart of a lengthy conservatorship battle over her finances, personal affairs, and more. Her son took over the conservatorship after alleging Bell, misused her fortunes. Johnson and Bell have been locked in legal battles along with Nichols’ longtime friend, Angelique Fawcette, for control of the legend’s conservatorship.

She leaves behind her only child, Kyle.

See you in the stars, Nichelle.

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