Trailblazing Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols dies at 89

Actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, best known for her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, has died at age 89.

Her son, Kyle Johnson, posted a statement which read, “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.”

When Star Trek began in 1966, Nichols was a television rarity: a Black woman in a notable role on a prime-time television series. There had been African-American women on TV before, but they often played domestic workers and had small roles; Nichols’ Uhura was an integral part of the multicultural Star Trek crew.

Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” Nichols is widely known for participating in one of the first interracial kisses on US television when her character kissed James T. Kirk, portrayed by White Canadian actor William Shatner. In an interview with CNN in 2014, Nichols said the kiss scene “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another.”

After Trek’s three-season run, Nichols dedicated herself to the space program. She helped NASA in making the agency more diverse, helping to recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik and Guion Bluford, among others.

Nichelle Nichols and George Takei
Credit: George Takei/Twitter

George Takei, who portrayed the USS Enterprise’s helmsman Hikaru Sulu, posted a touching tribute to his co-star.

“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,” wrote Takei on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”

NASA tweeted, “We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolised 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.”

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