Actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, best known as Star Trek’s communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, died Saturday night in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89 years old.
“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” her son Kyle Johnson wrote on the website Uhura.com. “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 one of the first Black women featured in a major television series, and her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original TV series was groundbreaking: an African American woman whose name came from Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom.”
“Here I was projecting in the 23rd century what should have been quite simple,” Nichols told NPR in 2011. “We’re on a starship. I was head communications officer. Fourth in command on a starship. They didn’t see this as being, oh, it doesn’t happen til the 23rd century. Young people and adults saw it as now.”
In 1968, Nichols made headlines when Uhura shared an intimate kiss with Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) in an episode called “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Their interracial kiss on the lips was revolutionary, one of the first such moments on TV.
Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in a Chicago suburb where her father was the mayor. She grew up singing and dancing, aspiring to star in musical theater. She got her first break in the 1961 musical Kicks and Co., a thinly veiled satire of Playboy magazine. She was the star of the Chicago stock company production of Carmen Jones, and in New York performed in Porgy and Bess.
‘To me, the highlight and the epitome of my life as a singer and actor and a dancer/choreographer was to star on Broadway,” she told NPR in 2011, adding that as her popularity on Star Trek grew, she was beginning to get other offers. “I decided I was going to leave, go to New York and make my way on the Broadway stage.”