American actress Nichelle Nichols, best known for her role in 1960s sci-fi TV series Star Trek, has died aged 89.
She died on Saturday night, July 30, in Silver City, N.M. Nichols’ death was confirmed by Gilbert Bell, her talent manager and business partner of 15 years.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. 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,” Johnson said in a statement shared to Nichols’ official site on Sunday night. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Nichols died from natural causes, he said.
Nichols portrayed communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the “Star Trek” TV series and many of its film offshoots.
When “Star Trek” began in 1966, Nichols was a television rarity: a Black woman in a notable role on a prime-time television series. There had been African-American women on TV before, but they often played domestic workers and had small roles; Nichols’ Uhura was an integral part of the multicultural “Star Trek” crew.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.”
Nichols is widely known for participating in one of the first interracial kisses on US television when her character kissed James T. Kirk, portrayed by White Canadian actor William Shatner.
In an interview with CNN in 2014, Nichols said the kiss scene “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another.”
After “Trek’s” three-season run, Nichols dedicated herself to the space program. She helped NASA in making the agency more diverse, helping to recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, and Guion Bluford, among others.
George Takei, who portrayed the USS Enterprise’s helmsman Hikaru Sulu, posted a touching tribute to his co-star.
“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,” wrote Takei on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
“We lived long and prospered together,” he added with a photo of the pair making the iconic Vulcan salute.
The National Air and Space Museum called Nichols “an inspiration to many, not just for her groundbreaking work on Star Trek but also through her work with NASA to recruit women and people of color to apply to become astronauts” on Twitter.
Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia, also posted a tribute to the actress. “Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior, and tremendous actor,” wrote Abrams on Twitter alongside a photo of herself with Nichols. “Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars.”
Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols near Chicago in 1932. (Unhappy with Grace, she took the name Nichelle when she was a teenager.) Her grandfather was a White Southerner who married a Black woman, causing a rift in his family.
Nichols is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.