From the very first episode of “Star Trek,” “The Man Trap,” Nichelle Nichols, who died of natural causes July 30, at 89, was a consummate actor and that as Lt. Nyota Uhura, the communications officer she established her place as the first leading Black woman in space. In this exchange with Spock she made it plain that she was merely trying to strike up a conversation, and not about moonlight on his planet of Vulcan.
And this was just the beginning of their relationship, though her first kiss was with Captain Kirk, making it the first interracial kiss on television. Nichols explained that “I just got the script and I said, ‘Oh, wow, great! We’re going to get a little romance in here!’” In the original script the kiss was between Spock and Uhura, but Bill Shatner, who portrayed Kirk, said, “Oh, no! If anyone is going to kiss Nichelle, it’s going to be me.” The script was rewritten and the cast laughed about it.
This is just an example of the camaraderie that made “Star Trek” such a popular show, creating a coterie of “Trekkies” like the undying fans of the Grateful Dead. Nichols’ role provided an opening for African Americans in sci-fi and other productions where the fictional future was devoid of Black people. Her influence was even more meaningful for Blacks on Earth and reached beyond television to NASA, where she was instrumental in recruiting female and minority candidates to be astronauts.
In this capacity she made public appearances and recorded several PSAs on behalf of the agency. She was a keynote speaker in 2012 at the Goddard Space Center and lauded for helping to diversify the space program. A NASA news release underscored her contributions, noting, “Nichols’s role as one of television’s first Black characters to be more than just a stereotype and one of the first women in a position of authority [she was fourth in command of the Enterprise] inspired thousands of applications from women and minorities,” the release said. “Among them: Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Judith Resnik, first American woman in space Sally Ride and current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.”
Born Grace Dell Nichols on Dec. 28, 1932, in Robbins, Ill., she asked her mother for another name and they decided on Nichelle, mainly because of its alliteration. She came of age in Chicago, and at a very early age possessed a remarkable singing voice. Her first professional performance was in a revue and occurred while she was still a student at Englewood High School. For a year, after Duke Ellington spotted her dance routine, she was hired and toured with the troupe as a dancer in his jazz suites.
During the 1950s she performed at a number of nightclubs, even at the Playboy Club in New York City, all the while waiting unsuccessfully for a chance on stage as an understudy of Diahann Carroll in the musical “No Strings.” When director Otto Preminger filmed his version of “Porgy and Bess,” Nichelle was a dancer; four years later in 1963, she made her television debut in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” and the series was created by Gene Roddenberry, who would later create “Star Trek.” Two intimations of what lay ahead for her.
She had cameo appearances on a number of television shows, including “Head of the Class” and “Peyton Place.” On stage in Los Angeles she did impersonations and saluted such Black women as Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, and Eartha Kitt. Not too long after her appearance on “Peyton Place,” she took the role on “Star Trek,” as a line on her resume since her real dream was Broadway. Roddenberry, with whom she had a brief affair, told her to think it over, and she decided to stay and the rest as they say is history.
Nichelle was married twice, she and Foster Johnson had one son, Kyle, who many film buffs may remember for his starring role in Gordon Parks’ “The Learning Tree.” In her autobiography published in 1995, she revealed a lot of intimacies that she kept to herself for many years. And many of them occurred on the “Starship Enterprise.” But to get the lowdown on that check out the book, and a final word from President Biden, who said the nation lost a “trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women.”