Nichelle Nichols, de Star Trek actor whose role as an on-screen lieutenant on the bridge of a spaceship was a groundbreaking example of representation for black Americans in Hollywood, died Saturday (July 30). She was 89.
Her passing was confirmed on Instagram on Sunday (July 31) by the actor’s son, Kyle Johnson.
“Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” he wrote. “However, her light, like the ancient galaxies now seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and be inspired by.”
“Her life was a life well lived and as such a model for all of us,” Johnson added.
Nichols rose to fame when she was cast in the 1966 space adventure series Star Trek as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the ship’s communications officer. The role was important for many reasons: it was one of the first major roles for a black woman in an American television series, it was one of the first portraits of a black woman in a military-style commando role in any format, and it would later culminating in one of the first on-screen kisses between a white actor, William Shatner, and a black co-star.
Her time in that role only lasted a few years, with the show being canceled in 1969, but its significance would last for decades. She was reportedly even persuaded by legendary civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to remain in the role for the short duration of the series. Nichols would later play Lieutenant Uhura in a number of Star Trek movies included The search for Spock.
together with her Star Trek career, Nichols would partner with NASA, the US space agency, in an effort to recruit more women and people of color for its astronaut and science programs. The effort led to the recruitment of Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut.
She talked about how her work Star Trek had led to the expansion of NASA’s efforts to recruit women during a 2012 interview with StarTrek.com.
“[My] legacy continues in the modern astronaut corps, where sex and color no longer matter… as it should be,” she said. “I continue to be proud to have been chosen to create those first women and minorities [in the space program] a reality.”
In her later years, she would retire from performing at fan conventions where she and other members of the original cast were treated like royalty.
She didn’t appear at the Los Angeles Comic Con until 2021.