Grace Dell “Nichelle” Nichols was not just an actress. She was a singer, a dancer, a spokesperson, a volunteer, an icon, and a beacon of hope and kindness.
Most recognized for her role as Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series, the original animated series, and the six subsequent feature films, Nichols was one of the first Black actors featured in a television series in the 1960s. Prior to this she had nearly ten years of success as a stage actress working in various plays and musicals. Getting her foot in the door with Gene Roddenberry and impressing him on his show The Lieutenant, he thought of her for his next project.
As Lt. Uhura, Nichols was a major part of the show as one of the bridge crew members. Initially unable to comprehend the impact she was having on the world, Nichols considered leaving the show early on in its production, but a brief encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed her mind (look up the story), and pop culture was forever changed. Aside from being a main character who was in nearly every episode, she also shared the one of the first interracial kisses on TV with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. A moment that was fought against by the producers and the network, Nichols and Shatner did the take only a few times, and ruined all but one on purpose to ensure it not only made it into the episode, but was a sustained moment and unable to be trimmed down any further.
It can’t be ignored that Uhura’s presence on a major TV series that portrayed a multi-race starship crew in the 1960s changed the world, even if only slightly for the better. Set in an idealized future, Trek showed people what the human race could be. Not only that, but the amount of lives she touched as Uhura is simply immeasurable. She inspired countless lives, especially Black lives, Black women. No matter your skin color or nationality, seeing this show had to have an effect on you.
Nichols went on to act in other projects, but her impact as Uhura carried her legacy into other humanitarian and scientific efforts. She worked with NASA on space shuttle projects and helping young women scientists break into the field of space exploration, and she also served on the governors’s board of the National Space Society in the 1980s.
A hero through and through, Nichols changed history for the better both on and off the screen, and we are all indebted to her
A legend who touched so many lives, including my own, in a profound way, there should be just as many kind words about this wonderful woman as there can be. I could never do her justice with this small piece, but I hope it’s better than nothing.
Nichols suffered a mild stroke in 2015, and in 2018 was diagnosed with a form of dementia, uon which she formally decided to bow out of public life altogether. She passed away due to heart failure on July 30, 2022 at the age of 89. Her ashes are set to be sent into space, where her heart always strove to be, among the stars.