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Actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, better known as star trekCommunications officer Lt. Uhura died Saturday night in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89 years old.
“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years.” his son Kyle Johnson wrote on the Uhura.com website. “Its light, however, like the ancient galaxies seen now for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn and be inspired by.”
Nichols was one of the first black women to appear on a major television series, and her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original television series was groundbreaking: an African-American woman whose name comes from Uhuru, the Swahili word for ” freedom “.
“Here I was projecting into the 23rd century what should have been quite simple,” Nichols told NPR in 2011. “We’re on a spaceship. I was chief communications officer. Fourth in command of a spaceship. They didn’t see this as being, oh, this won’t happen until the 23rd century. The young and the adults saw it as now.”
In 1968, Nichols made headlines when Uhura shared an intimate kiss with Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) in an episode titled “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Their interracial kiss on the lips was groundbreaking, one of the first such moments on television.
Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in a suburb of Chicago where her father was mayor. She grew up singing and dancing, aspiring to perform in musical theatre. She got her first break in the 1961 musical Kicks and Co.., a thinly veiled satire of Playboy magazine. She starred in the Chicago Stock Company production of Carmen Jones, and in New York she performed in Porgy and Bess.
“For me, the highlight and quintessence of my life as a singer, actress and dancer/choreographer was performing on Broadway,” she told NPR in 2011, adding that her popularity on star trek grew up, she began to receive other offers. “I decided I was going to leave, go to New York and make my way onto the Broadway stage.”
Nichols said she went to see Gene Roddenberry, the creator of star trek, and announced that she was leaving. “He was very upset about it. And he said, take the weekend and think about what I’m trying to achieve here on this show. You’re an integral part of it and very important.”
So that weekend, she went to an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills and was asked to meet a man who said he was her number one fan: Martin Luther King, Jr.
“He complimented me on how I created the character. I thanked him and I think I said something like, ‘Dr. King, I wish I could walk with you. He said, “No, no, no. No, you don’t understand. We don’t need you…to walk. You walk. You reflect what we stand for.” So I said, ‘Thank you so much. And I’m going to miss my co-stars.'”
“His face got very, very serious,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘what are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘Well, I told Gene yesterday that I’m going to quit the show after freshman year because I was offered… And he stopped me and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I was stunned. He said, “Don’t you understand what this man has accomplished? For the first time, we are seen around the world as we should be seen. He says, you understand this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our grandchildren to stay awake and watch. I was speechless.”
Nichols returned to the series, which ran until 1969. She also reprized her famous role in six subsequent feature films, including Star Trek II: Wrath of Khanwhere Uhura was promoted to commander.
For years, Nichols also helped diversify the real space program, helping recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Guion Bluford and others. And she had her own scientific foundation, women on the move.
“Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation,” tweeted actress Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman on television in the 1970s. “Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of black women and paved the way for a brighter future for all women in media. Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you.”
George Takei, who starred in Star Trek as helmsman Hikaru Sulu, tweeted: “I will have more to say about the pioneering and incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the deck with us as Lieutenant Uhura of the USS Enterprise,” she wrote. “For today my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars among which you now rest, my dearest friend.”
He also posted a photo of his longtime friend, both displaying the Vulcan greeting, and these words: “We have lived long and prospered together.”