Nichelle Nichols, a breakthrough black actress who played communications officer Nyota Uhura with cool authority on the popular 1960s series Star Trek, has died at the age of 89.
Her son Kyle Johnson announced the death on the official website uhura.com, saying: “Last night my mother Nichelle Nichols succumbed to natural causes and died the first time, will stay.”
A family spokesman said Nichols died in Silver City, New Mexico, where she lived with her son.
Honors poured in quickly, including from a long list of dedicated Trekkies.
George Takei, who shared the bridge with Lieutenant Uhura on the USS Enterprise as helmsman Sulu, called her “groundbreaking and incomparable”, while prominent Georgian politician Stacey Abrams praised her as “a champion, a warrior and an outstanding actress”.
Nichols made history with one of the first interracial kisses on US television – a 1968 hug with Captain Kirk of the Enterprise, played by William Shatner (a kiss that deserves a separate entry on Wikipedia).
Martin Luther King Jr. himself once praised Nichols for breaking new ground with her powerful performance at a time when black actors were more often cast as servants or criminals.
Nichols, who trained in ballet and musical theater, once told Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that she wanted to quit the show to return to theater.
But when she mentioned it to King at a chance meeting reported by The Hollywood Reporter, “The whole smile went off his face and he said, ‘You can’t do that. Don’t you see, for the first time, we’re you seen the way we should be seen? You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.”
Though best known as Uhura, Nichols had a varied career, dancing with Sammy Davis Jr. on Porgy and Bess, appearing on the NBC series Heroes, and recording an album.
She also played Uhura – a name derived from Swahili for “freedom” – in the first six “Star Trek” films.
Later, Nichols worked as a recruiter for NASA — which approached her after criticizing the lack of diversity — and successfully encouraged several talented African Americans and women of all races to consider careers with the space agency.