Grace Nichols (1933- ), better known as Nichelle Nichols, is an American actress famous for playing Lieutenant Uhura on “Star Trek”, both on television, from 1966 to 1969, and in the first six films, from 1979 to 1991. Since 2009, Uhura has been played by Zoe Saldana.
“And Uhura, whose name means freedom. She walks in beauty, like the night.”
– Ambassador Kollos, 2268 (“Is There in Truth No Beauty?”)
Nichols was going to quit “Star Trek” after the first year: she was little more than “a glorified telephone operator in space,” as she put it.
But then, at a civil rights protest, she ran into a Black fan who persuaded her not to quit:
“Don’t you know you have the first non-stereotypical role in television? … For the first time the world will see us as we should be seen – people of quality in the future. You created a role with dignity and beauty and grace and intelligence. You’re not just a role model for our children, but for people who don’t look like us to see us for the first time as equals, as intelligent people – as we should be.”
That eloquent fan was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nichelle Nichols is credited with another first: the first interracial kiss on US television, or at least the first one between a Black woman and a White man. That was in 1968 on the “Star Trek” episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” where she kisses Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Even though it was not a romantic kiss – it was done under alien mind control! – it was blocked by some television stations in the South and in England.
It was hardly her own first interracial kiss: in the early 1960s she had an affair with a married White man: Gene Roddenberry, the very man who would later create “Star Trek”!
She grew up in Robbins, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where her father had been mayor. In the 1940s, she became one of the first Black girls (if not the first) to get into the Chicago Ballet Academy. She also studied Afro-Cuban dance. That led to her travelling with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton as a singer and dancer.
She was briefly on Broadway before moving to Hollywood. She appeared as a dancer in “Porgy and Bess” (1959), starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, but her big break came with “Star Trek”.
In the 1970s and 1980s she became a NASA recruiter, getting women and people of colour interested in becoming astronauts. She is the one who signed up Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Guion Bluford, the first Black American. She also inspired Mae Jemison, the first Black American woman in space.
In 1974 Nichols appeared in a blaxpoitation film with Isaac Hayes, “Truck Turner”, where she plays the evil and sexy Dorinda.
She is now 82 but still appears at Star Trek and comic book conventions!
Some actors feel overshadowed by their Star Trek characters. Not Nichols, who is:
“proud of who [Uhura] was (or will be) and what she represented, not only in her time but in ours.”
– Abagond, 2016.
- Welcome to Black Women’s History Month 2016!
- Star Trek
- Annie Easley – worked for NASA
- Dorothy Dandridge
- Zoe Saldana
- Star Trek: The Doomsday Machine – my only Star Trek post.
- “representation matters”
- The best Black women on television ever
- Other early Black television actors