The Association for the Study of African American Life and History mourns the death of Nichelle Nichols and heralds her entry into the final frontier when her ashes are sent to deep space aboard a Vulcan rocket.
Nichols is most well known for her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the 1960s television show, Star Trek. An icon of black futurism, on earth, Nichols was a singer, dancer, actress, painter, seamstress, activist, and STEM advocate. Her image is ubiquitous from former President Barack Obama’s boyhood dreams to Lola Carmichael judge’s chamber in the CBS series All Rise. Her status as one of the first black women in a television leading role continues to drive black imagination of the future and ushered in other black women in space – figuratively and literally.
Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in Chicago to Samuel L. and Lishia Nichols. She was one among six children, and known as her father’s “pet.” In her early years, she took dance lessons, hoping to become the first black world-class ballerina. As Nichols entered her teens and an early career in dance and music, she changed her name from Grace to Nichelle.
As a high schooler, her first performance at age fourteen at The Hotel Sherman a fixture in Chicago which catered to black entertainers of the 1940s. The hotel sponsored a successful musical, at The College Inn, which lasted nearly a year. Nichols caught the eye of Duke Ellington during her performance, and Ellington requested that she join him as a ballerina for one of his productions. Nichols had the look he wanted, but was too young. The youthful Nichols rectified the problem when she returned in a sultry gold dress and matching gold shoes, and a sweeping updo, which gave her the “appearance” of being older.
Nichols went on to star in musicals from the east to the west coast, and by the late 1950s and early 1960s, she was touring with Lionel Hampton’s legendary band as a featured singer. Her time with Hampton allowed Nichols to attain a long-term nightclub act in London before she joined the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross Trio at Chicago’s Blue Angel Night Club.
By 1959, Nichols transitioned from the stage to the film and television screen. She first appeared in the film version of Porgy and Bess, though she turned down a film role as a minor handmaiden in Cleopatra. Nichols was handmaiden to no one, and by 1962 Ebony featured her in a major magazine spread. The following year, Nichols appeared in an episode of the television series, The Lieutenant. However, the episode never aired because of its racial conflict. The decision angered Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator.
As a result, Roddenberry envisioned a new futuristic television series that would include people from various planets, races, and nations. He selected Nichols to play a major role as a senior communications officer in his newly created, but short-lived television series, he titled Star Trek. The series used science fiction to confront the social and political issues impacting American society, and Nichelle Nichols was at the heart of this storytelling.
Roddenberry upon casting Nicholls had yet to select her character’s name. However, he received inspiration from the 1962 novel by Robert Ruark titled Uhuru that Nichols was reading about the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. Uhuru in Swahili translated into English as freedom. Nichols suggested to Roddenberry to use alliteration to convert Uhuru to Uhura, thus naming her character.
Originally from an African country, the Uhura character demonstrated strength and intelligence. Nichols presence on board the Star Ship Enterprise, eventually had Ebony magazine crooning that she was the “most heavenly body in ‘Star Trek.’ ” They weren’t wrong, but her role in the series proved much more powerful. Perhaps the most famous episodes- “Mirror, Mirror” and “Plato’s Step Children,” demonstrated both Nichols range and broader social import as an actor.
In “Mirror, Mirror,” she played a treacherous, knife-wielding femme fatale, who strategically aimed for the captaincy and control of the star ship. The image was a dramatic counter to the stereotypes about Black women. Indeed, Nichols noted that strong independent black women were hardly depicted anywhere in television and Hollywood at the time. She refused to treat Uhura as a “female” stereotype. However, Nichols rebuffed these efforts and insisted that her character was a military officer, educated professional, and a master linguist communicating dozens of languages throughout the galaxies.
“Plato’s Step Children” similarly broke new ground when Nichols and her co-actor, William Shatner, shared the first interracial kiss on American television. Although Desilu Productions expressed concerns about the episodes airing in the racially segregated South, the antics of Shatner made each scene retake unusable but the full kissing scene.
Despite Nichols important symbolic image, she ran into numerous issues of both ego and racism on the set of Star Trek. Nichols recalled in her book, Beyond Uhura, that the Desilu Productions deliberately hid her fan mail, to diminish her sense of the character’s importance to the American public. She also noted that co-star William Shatner and writers systematically cut her lines and efforts to develop her character. With each script revision, Uhura’s lines reduced more and more. Script revisions regularly dwindled down to the line, “Hailing frequencies open, sir.” The ubiquitous repetition eventually drove Nichols to threats to blow up the console if she had to repeat “hailing frequencies open” again.
Nichols challenged these decisions and eventually determined that she would leave the position, because “what good was a communication officer who could not talk?” she recalled in an interview in Women in Motion. Nichols also felt the character stymied her acting career and return to the stage. Nichols intended to leave Star Trek until a chance meeting with a fan changed her trajectory in both life and career.
While at the NAACP Image Banquet, event organizers introduced her to avid fan, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King explained that Star Trek was the only show his children were allowed to view. Martin Luther King, III fondly remembered his time with his father watching the show as a part of their family time. Nichols, however, shared that she’d just turned in her resignation to Roddenberry, greatly upsetting King. King insisted that Nichols was important not just to Black people and women, but because she changed attitudes “simply because she was there” and demonstrated how black people should be seen every day. Similarly, Michael Eric Dyson noted in Women in Motion documentary, that Nichols appealed to us “by making us understand that we were going to be present in whatever future was being imagined.”
Despite Nichols significant impact, Star Trek series ended after two years. Nichols assumed she would return to the stage. However, one year after Star Trek’s end, annual meetings and conventions began to emerge. Initially considered crazed Trekkies, the ongoing interest in Star Trek and its syndication, rebooted the show into movies, multiple spin-off series, comics, animations, fictional works, toys and action figures, and yearly celebrations- including the upcoming Star Trek Day. Nichelle Nichols name became synonymous with Lt. Uhura.
The popularity of Uhura and the rise of Star Trek conventions eventually generated interest from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The first NASA representative appeared at the largest Star Trek Convention in Chicago in 1975. After her introduction to NASA, Nichols felt in that moment, that “I wanted to be there, not in fantasy, not in 300 years from today, but NOW!” Nichols wrote essays promoting women and people of color in science and technology, insisting that there were qualified candidates. In 1977, she was appointed to the Board of Directors of the National Space Institute (NSI). In her speech before NSI- Space, “What’s In It for Me,” she argues where are my people?
After the speech, NASA turned to Nichols and her newly established company Women in Motion, for assistance in recruiting people of color and women as candidates for spaceflight training. NASA was preparing to transition into the shuttle era, which now required a varied class of astronauts. NASA needed not only pilots, but also PhDs, researchers, and mission specialists – but was hampered by segregationist gatekeeping. They needed Nichols help, but she had reservations regarding NASA’s commitment. She eventually agreed to work with NASA, but made it clear that if the program remained filled with all white males, she would file a class action lawsuit and appear before Congress challenging NASA’s hiring practices.
Nichols was given four months to recruit for NASA’s first cohort of astronauts. She became a one-woman recruitment agency- drastically changing NASA’s incoming group of candidates. She appeared in public service announcements, radio interviews, and morning television shows like Good Morning America. Nichols traveled, met, and gave talks at universities, women’s organizations, organizations of black engineers, pilots, and scientists, as well as Asian and Latinx organizations around the country. Nichols was even threatened for her activities, particularly in the South. At the end of her recruitment period, Nichols had visited hundreds of cities, appeared on television and radio almost daily, and spoke with thousands of people. NASA had only 1500 applications, less than 100 from women and 35 from people of color. As a result of her efforts, NASA had over 8000 applications, 1649 from women, and 1000 from people of color. Nichol’s cohort included Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Ellison Onizuka, Frederick Gregory, Charles Bolden, Ron McNair, and Guion Stewart Bluford, the first African American in space, and Sally Ride, the first woman in space. Gregory went on to become NASA’s first African American Deputy Administrator. Additionally, Charles Bolden became NASA administrator under the Obama administration and led NASA’s early forays into exploration of Mars. Tragically, three of Nichols’ recruits, Ron McNair, Judith Resnik, and Ellison Onizuka, died during the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel into space, later credited Nichols for her own decision to become an astronaut. Nichols organization, Women in Motion, single-handedly challenged the presumptions of an American society that doubted the abilities of people of color and women to work in space and technology.
As NASA initiates its new Artemis Program, Nichelle Nichols memory reverberates in the lives of Black people as we enter a new frontier of space exploration. She reflected the best of ourselves – black freedom in space. We mourn her death and bear witness to Nichols as a trailblazer who broke boundaries and advocated for our right to the future.
May she travel throughout all the galaxies, her final frontier.
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