Nichelle Nichols, an actress and singer best known for her portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura in ‘Star Trek,’ died of natural causes Sunday at the age of 89, according to a statement from her son, Kyle Johnson.
Ms. Nichols portrayed Lt. Uhura, a communications officer, throughout the original ‘Star Trek’ series and in many of the films that followed. Beginning in 1966, her role as a black female officer and integral part of the USS Enterprise crew was groundbreaking in an era that often relegated black women to small roles as domestic workers.
According to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lt. Uhura was “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a black woman in television history.”
The role led to another notable moment in TV history when, along with James T. Kirk actor William Shatner, she participated in one of the first interracial kisses on U.S. television. Ms. Nichols said in a 2014 interview that the scene “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another.”
Following the end of ‘Star Trek, Ms. Nichols leaned into her standing as a science fiction icon by dedicating herself to the U.S. space program, helping to bring more diversity to NASA. She aided in the recruitment of astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnick and Guion Bluford, among others.
In a Twitter post, the National Air and Space Museum called her “an inspiration to many, not just for her groundbreaking work on Star Trek but also through her work with NASA to recruit women and people of color to apply to become astronauts.”
Born Grace Dell Nichols near Chicago in 1932, Ms. Nichols changed her name to Nichelle as a teenager. Initially a singer, she performed in Chicago-area clubs from the age of 14, at one point touring with Duke Ellington.
Moving to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, Ms. Nichols landed a role in Gene Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant.” Mr. Roddenberry was impressed with her performance, later seeking her out for her role in ‘Star Trek.’
– Matt Smolensky