Nichelle Nichols, who was best known for her groundbreaking role as Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series, died at age 89. Her son, Kyle Johnson, informed her fans in a post on Nichols’ Instagram account.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” Johnson writes. “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.”
Nichols was born on December 28th, 1932 in Robbins, Illinois. Before joining the cast of Star Trek, Nichols toured with jazz artist Duke Ellington as a dancer and singer, and later starred in the 1959 film Porgy and Bess, as well as The Lieutenant television series (1964).
Nichols joined the cast of Star Trek in 1966 as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, making history as the first Black woman to play a leading role on TV. She almost left Star Trek for a career in Broadway, but, ultimately, a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to stay on the show. Dr. King, a Star Trek fan himself, reminded Nichols of the monumental significance of her role, which led her to take back her resignation. Nichols stayed on Star Trek until the original series ended in 1969.
Nichols’ legacy reaches far beyond Star Trek. She partnered with NASA to encourage the recruitment of astronauts from underrepresented backgrounds. Her work helped bring the first woman, Sally Ride, and the first Black man, Colonel Guion Bluford, to space. The 2019 film, Woman in Motion, is dedicated to the impact of Nichols’ advocacy on NASA. Last December, Nichols announced her retirement from space advocacy after making a final appearance at the LA Comic Con.
Nichols’ colleagues and castmates responded to the news of her death online. Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice, writes on Twitter: “Representation matters. Excellence in representation matters even more… Rest well, ancestor.”
George Takei, best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek also posted a tribute to Nichols on Twitter. “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89,” Takei says. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”