The bridge of Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise was surpassingly diverse for a 1960s television show. The first officer was an alien, the helmsman was Japanese, the navigator was Russian, and the communications officer was an African woman. Actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, played communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, whose name came from Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom.” At age 89, Nichols died Saturday night of heart failure in Silver City, New Mexico. Nichols was one of the first Black women featured in a major television series.
It was a groundbreaking role that Nichols did not realize just how groundbreaking until she met a particular fan of hers. It was 1967, and reviews for the first season of Star Trek were not great. Nichols had bigger issues with the show. She found it demoralizing to see her lines cut and cut again. She had to deal with racist insults off set, as well as from executives who conspired to keep her from seeing her fan mail. At the end of the first season, Nichols recounted in her autobiography, she told the show’s creator she was done.
But the next day, at an NAACP function, a fan greeted her: Martin Luther King Jr. He told her how important her role was and how he and his family watched Star Trek faithfully and adored her in particular — the only Black character. Nichols thanked him, but said she planned to leave.
“You cannot and you must not,” she recalls him saying. “Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? … Don’t you see? This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first non-stereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground. “… For the first time,” he continued, “the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people — as we should be.”
Nichols stayed for the next two seasons of the series, lent her voice to an animated version, and appeared in a half-dozen Star Trek movies. She had the first interracial kiss in American television. She recruited for NASA. Through her work, she influenced Mae Jemison — the first Black female astronaut.
Nichols suffered a stroke in 2015 and was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. Last December, at San Diego’s Comic Con, Nichols made her last public appearance and was celebrated by NASA.
With the passing of Nichelle Nichols, one of Star Trek’s brightest stars has gone out. Hailing frequency closed.