The iconic actress Nichelle Nichols, who was most well-known for her role as Lieutenant Uhara on the original Star Trek series, passed away on July 30th, 2022. Nichols was 89 years old and died of “natural causes”, according to a statement from her son, Kyle Johnson. In the same statement, Johnson said “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Nichelle Nichols was truly a role model, both because of her acting career and outside of it. The role of Lieutenant Uhara was described by Dr. Martin Luther King as “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” When Star Trek premiered in 1966, a black woman on television in and of itself was uncommon. Furthermore, when you did see black women on television, they commonly played servants or maids, and were much smaller roles.
The character of Lieutenant Uhara was truly revolutionary because she was portrayed as maintaining a position of power and respect among her white peers. Uhara also partook in one of the first interracial kisses in television history with the character of Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner.
As an example of Nichelle Nichols’ legacy, famed comedian Whoopi Goldberg has always attributed the character of Uhara as her inspiration for becoming an actress. Goldberg famously told Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that the first time she saw Uhara onscreen she ran through her house yelling “Come quick, come quick, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!”
Nichols’ influence extends further than her acting career, however. Nichols helped recruit the first women and people of color to apply to be astronauts for NASA by starring in a promotional film for that purpose in 1977. The next astronaut class of 1978 included the first black person to go to space, Guy Bluford, and the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride.
This achievement was something that Nichols took great pride in. She stated in an interview for Smithsonian Channel “I recruited the first women and minority astronauts for the space shuttle program. I really am proud of that because at the time, people were saying ‘it’ll never happen’ you know, and I said, well it already happened.”
William Shatner tweeted a loving tribute in response to Nichols’ passing: “I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world. I will certainly miss her.”
Image Credit: Desilu Productions/Paramount Television
Editor: Lindsey Neri
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