Nichelle Nichols, the ground-breaking woman who blazed a trail in sci-fi during her time in the Star Trek franchise, has passed away.
Even when she was a teenager, Nichols was already destined for stardom. At sixteen years old, Nichols was travelling with Duke Ellington's band as a dancer when the jazz legend pulled her aside one day and asked her to sing. She crooned some Duke tunes. He told her she would have to go on and front the band. Nichols was "wonderful," according to Ellington, but he kidded her about nervously gripping the microphone the entire time.
Her first credited TV role came from a pre-Trek Gene Roddenberry series, The Lieutenant. She appeared as a guest star in 1964's episode "To Set It Right". Boldly ahead of it's time, the episode dealt with racism head on and went unaired at the time to avoid controversy.
Not only did she play Uhura on the legendary 1966 Star Trek series, she created the character. When Nichols auditioned for Trek, she walked in to meet Roddenberry carrying the novel Uhuru, which is Swahili for "freedom." As she told the Wall Street Journal, "Gene said he really liked the name of that book and wanted to use the title as a first name. I said, 'Why don’t you do an alliteration of the name Uhuru and soften the N and make it Uhura?' He said, 'You are Uhura and that belongs to you.'"
While now we can't imagine the classic crew without the communications officer, she nearly left the series after the first season. Fellow actress Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand) left Trek after the first season, and Nichols was afraid her character was being pushed aside in storylines as well, so she made the choice to leave the series.
However, as we all know, she decided to stay and became one of the core tenants of the Enterprise crew. What convinced her to stay? Nobody other than Martin Luther King, Jr.
The weekend after she decided to leave, she met Dr. King at an NAACP fundraiser. When Nichols told Dr. King she wanted to leave the show, he protested her decision. According to Dr. King, Nichols played an integral role in the representation of African Americans on television. Her character, Lieutenant Uhura, was one of the only black characters on television in a leading role. After their meeting, Nichols decided to stay with Star Trek and put her other professional goals on hold.
She continued to use her influence as a groundbreaking icon for good. In the 1970s and 1980s, NASA employed Nichols as a recruiter, as she helped to diversify the astronaut corps. She roped both Buford, the first African-American in space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, for the space agency.
Nichols got her turn in space as well — On September 15 of 2015, at 82 years old, she took a trip with NASA's SOFIA telescope into the upper stratosphere. She documented the whole incredible experience on social media.
While she may be gone here on Earth, Nichols will live on in the stars — literally. Discovered in August 2001, an asteroid in the main belt of the solar system was dubbed 68410 Nichols in honor of the actress. It takes 4.39 years to orbit the sun.
Nichol's son shared news of her passing on her official Facebook page, writing "Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all."
The television pioneer was 89 years old.
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