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Star Trek’s Uhura dies at 89 –


Nichelle Nichols, the actress whose portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura on TV’s “Star Trek” inspired countless science fiction fans to envision a peacefully multicultural future, died Saturday night, her son announced on her official website.

Trailblazing actress

Nichols, who grew up in the Chicago area and began to make a name for herself as a stage actress, found fame on “Star Trek.” Her casting was part of show creator Gene Roddenberry’s drive to assemble a multicultural crew for his futuristic USS Enterprise. Debuting in 1966, “Star Trek” placed Uhura on the bridge as the ship’s communications officer, making Nichols one of the first Black TV actresses to play a character in a position of leadership and authority.

As Uhura, Nichols became an icon of optimistic Afrofuturism, years before that term was coined. NASA’s Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel in space, named Uhura as one of the sparks that inspired her drive to become an astronaut. Actress Whoopi Goldberg remembered watching “Star Trek” as a child and exclaiming to her family, “I just saw a Black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!”

Even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was a fan: In her autobiography, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” Nichols recalled a time when she was struggling with the decision whether to leave the show after its first season or continue. At an NAACP fundraiser, she was introduced to King, who revealed that he loved “Star Trek” – and implored her not to leave the show. She was, he said, doing important work, helping advance the struggle for civil rights through her groundbreaking role.

Nichols took King’s advice to heart and stayed on for the full three-season run of the show. She also costarred in the first six “Star Trek” movies and provided Uhura’s voice on 1973’s “Star Trek: The Animated Series” on TV. She and co-star William Shatner made further entertainment history when, in a 1968 episode of the original series, they shared TV’s first scripted interracial kiss.

Work with NASA

In the years after the original series’ cancellation, Nichols worked with NASA to recruit women and minorities to the astronaut program. Her legendary status helped make the program a success, with its recruits including Sally Ride (1951–2012), the first U.S. woman astronaut, as well as the space shuttle Challenger crew members Judith Resnik (1949–1986) and Ronald McNair (1950–1986).

Other work

Nichols appeared in movies including “Truck Turner” and “Snow Dogs,” and she had a recurring role on TV’s “Heroes” as well as guest spots on series including “Futurama” and “The Simpsons.” Other ventures included a recording career, with two albums released. Nichols also penned two novels: “Saturn’s Child” and “Saturna’s Quest.”

Nichols is among the notable personalities honored with the naming of an asteroid. 68410 Nichols, discovered in 2001, is named for her.

Nichols on Uhura

“Uhuru is Swahili for freedom, and that’s the history of Africa — everyone is fighting for uhuru in one way or another either violently or strategically. He (Gene Roddenberry) says, ‘It sounds too harsh for a female.’ I said, ‘Well why don’t you do an alliteration of it, soften the end with an ‘A’ and it’ll be Uhura?’ He said ‘That’s it, that’s your name! You named it, it’s yours. Now I know exactly where your character comes from, the United States of Africa.’” –from a 2010 interview with the Television Academy Foundation

Tributes to Nichelle Nichols

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