Iconic, thoughtful, courageous, sassy, stunning, talented, and transcendent. Those are all words I associate with Nichelle Nichols, the remarkable human-being who embodied Nyota Uhura across decades.
Today, we learned that this wonderful woman had joined her friends, Gene Roddenberry, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and Grace Lee Whitney, in the undiscovered country.
The world learned from her son, Kyle Johnson, that she had passed away on the evening of the 30th of July, 2022, with more details provided by the L.A. Times, who reported Nichelle experienced heart failure at a hospital in Silver City, New Mexico.
Born Grace Dell Nichols on the 28th of December, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois, she was the third of six children. Her father, Samuel Earl Nichols, was a factory worker who was elected Mayor of Robbins in 1929, and then it’s chief magistrate, and her mother, Lishia Nichols (nee Parks), was a home-maker who cared for the family.
After finishing school in 1951, Nichelle went on to further study in New York City and Los Angeles, where she started landing various roles that eventually led to her meeting Gene Roddenberry in 1964 – whom she would briefly become romantically involved with in the mid-60s, until she learned he was also involved with an acquaintance of hers, Majel Barrett, who would later become Gene’s wife.
She met Gene on The Lieutenant (1964), a show created by Roddenberry that aired for one season on NBC. He was so impressed with her, that he hired her to join the crew of the USS Enterprise as Chief Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura, in the second pilot of Star Trek.
So many words have been written about Nichelle’s time as Uhura, that anything I could say would be redundant. However, there is one little story from her time on the original series that is worth repeating, because it reminds us of the fierce and resilient woman she was.
William Shatner, who most Trek fans know and love, had a bit of a reputation for being a scene stealer in those early years, insisting lines go to him rather than other characters, essentially robbing his colleagues of valuable screen time. He was, we would say these days, a bit of a diva.
Nichelle was one of the only people who would openly stand up to him on set when he was being unreasonable, thanks in part to the fact Gene Roddenberry had been a personal friend of hers for years (and remained so until his death), but also, we believe, because she was just one heck of a strong and powerful human. You could always see that in her eyes, her bearing, and hear it in her voice every time she was on screen as Uhura.
Nichelle Nichols is a true icon, and one who didn’t always receive the recognition she actually deserved. She was one of the most important players who helped change modern television.
Nichelle was one of the first Black women to feature in a major television series, with some calling her position as a bridge officer ‘unprecedented.’ Uhura was in the chain of command, and at any moment could have been put in charge – and actually was, in the animated series episode “The Lorelei Signal.” It’s a pity we were never allowed to see her in command in live-action, but like many of her fans I hold that episode dear, because Uhura got to save the men, and take charge of the Enterprise.
Nichelle broke moulds and redefined expectations at a time where America was engaged in a heated civil rights battle to recognise and respect Black America.
Martin Luther King Jr himself, in a popular story from Nichelle’s own life, once pleaded with her to remain on Star Trek, on the very day she had handed her resignation in – a resignation, we are relieved to say, Gene Roddenberry happily tore up a couple of days later when she asked to return.
We’re so glad Martin Luther King Jnr inspired her to remain in Star Trek, because she played as much of a part in creating Uhura as Gene did, and because representation really is important. Nichelle even named the character, using a book she was reading at the time of her audition (and had on her, when she went in to read for the part) as inspiration. That book was Uhuru, which is Swahili for Freedom. Nichelle suggested changing the word slightly to make it more feminine, and Uhura was born.
As well as being an actor, singer, model, and accidental symbol of hope for millions, Nichelle also played a major role in recruiting minority and female personnel into NASA.
After the cancellation of Star Trek in 1969, Nichelle volunteered with NASA on a special project to open space up to women and minorities, using a company she helped run called Women in Motion.
The program was a resounding success.
Nichelle went on to became an enthusiastic voice and advocate for space exploration.
As well as her pivotal work with NASA, Nichelle starred in six Star Trek feature films, reprising her role as first, Lieutenant Commander Nyota Uhura, later becoming Commander Uhura during the course of the first few films.
Throughout her career, she maintained a presence at various conventions, often expressing her love for the fans and thanking them for keeping the dream of Star Trek alive in so many wonderful and creative ways.
Though Star Trek defined her career, she never resented it, and though she featured in a number of other television and film productions, always showed her gratitude for the platform Star Trek gave her, and the relationships it brought to her life.
If you want to learn more about this truly inspirational human being, just type her name into a search engine and read away. She was a pioneer, and you will get plenty of hits. I also highly recommend her autobiography, Beyond Uhura.
Nichelle was my gateway into Star Trek, and she holds the most special place in my heart for that.
I don’t know why, but I connected with her character, and Uhura made me give the very-un-Star Wars like show that I had stumbled across, via reruns on Australian TV one afternoon in the late 1970s, a chance.
I was quite young, maybe seven or eight, and this incredibly noble looking woman, who was so compelling and so beautiful, and had a voice like liquid velvet, captivated me. I’m so grateful she did, because she opened up a whole new world for me.
Nichelle, you were a Queen. You will be missed, and my heart is broken.
I wish I had known you in person, but like many, I have admired and adored you from afar.
SciFi Mojo sends our most heart-felt condolences to Nichelle’s family, friends, and fans.
If you have the opportunity to watch the recently made documentary, Woman in Motion, about Nichelle’s life, I urge you to do so.
I’ll leave you with a small selection of some of the many tweets I read this morning about Nichelle, as I was crying into my coffee over this news (George Takei’s is especially heart-breaking) – but first, this image and tweet from Dave Blass, and an Instagram post from Zoe Saldana (who, along with Celia Rose Gooding, are doing a beautiful job of continuing to keep Uhura alive):
“We honored Nichelle Nichols’ and that of the character she created with Uhura with this plaque seen in the premiere of Season 2 of Star Trek Picard. Farewell Captain Nyota Uhura, you embodied everything that Starfleet stood for.“
It’s a bit hard to see, but the plaque reads:
USS LEONDEGRANCE NCC 2176
LANCELOT CLASS STARSHIP – IN SERVICE 2288-2336 – CAPTAIN NYOTA UHURA
With a design modeled on the venerable Walker Class, the Lancelot Class quickly became the workhorse of Starfleet’s survey and patrol fleet after its introduction in 2288. Captained by Nyota Uhura, the Leondegrance led an exploratory five-year mission to the Lesser Megallanic Cloud in 2301-2305, and participated in over one hundred first contact missions with the civilizations encountered there. The Leondegrance became an Academy training vessel in 2317, with Capt. Uhura remaining in command until her retirement in 2333.
Countless Academy cadets experienced faster-than-light travel for the first time aboard the Leondegrance, which is now on permanent display in the Fleet Museum.
And from Zoe Saldana:
“I’m saddened to learn of Nichelle Nichols’ passing. We have lost a true star – a unique artist who was ahead of her time always. She’s an icon, an activist and most importantly an amazing woman – who blazed a trail that has shown so many how to see women of color in a different light. Her strive for equality was unwavering.
“Meeting Nichelle was truly a very special moment in my life. Her energy was infectious every time I was in her presence. She convinced me in believing that anything was achievable, if you put your heart into it. I mean, she inspired Mae Jemison to follow her dreams of becoming an astronaut and that’s exactly what Mae did.“
When speaking about playing the role of Nyota Uhura, Zoe said:
“Nichelle made me feel safe, told me to play her with all the confidence in the world. My hope is that we continue to keep her memory alive by celebrating her amazing body of work, and by spreading the message of peace and equality amongst all people. She lived a long, impactful life and not only prospered, but helped so many others prosper too.“
Zoe had a bit more to say, and I encourage you to check out her Instagram post.
She finished her heartfelt tribute with: “REST IN POWER QUEEN NICHELLE.“
It’s a lovely tribute, and it’s clear that the time Zoe spent with Nichelle deeply affected her.
May we all live long, and prosper – and may we all aspire to live a life as meaningful as Nichelle’s.
Here are a few tweets to close out our tribute.