The Heartbreaking Death Of Nichelle Nichols

On July 30, Nichelle Nichols died at age 89, her death confirmed by talent manager Gilbert Bell, per Variety

Before she became Lieutenant Uhura in "Star Trek," she grew up as Grace Nichols in Robbins, Illinois in the 1930s, per Black Past. She and her family moved to Chicago when she was still very young, where she studied dance at the Chicago Ballet. Nichols remembered being interested in space and the future when she was a little girl. "I thought about the possibility of traveling in space and exploring other worlds. I remember asking my father if there was life in the Universe or on other planets," she told Future Dude.

At 15 years old, Nichols was discovered by Duke Ellington, who had her sing and dance on tour with his band, as noted by Black Past. When the tour ended, Nichols pursued modeling and acting in Los Angeles, where she began landing small roles on TV. In 1966, she landed the role of a lifetime as Lieutenant Uhura on "Star Trek: The Original Series."

Nichelle Nichols' Star Trek audition

When Nichelle Nichols walked into her "Star Trek" audition, she was carrying the big bestselling book, "Uhuru, a Novel of Africa Today," per her Archive of American Television interview (via YouTube). "Uhuru" is Swahili for freedom, as Nichols explained, and the book immediately caught the attention of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and the other producers. She and the producers spent 20 minutes discussing the book, which later became the inspiration behind her character's name, Uhura. And she convinced the producers to give her the role of the lieutenant, which was originally a male part.

Nichols broke enormous barriers in playing Lieutenant Uhura, but was still met with racism and sexism in the studio. "There were complaints from the front office. The studio was like, 'There's a woman on the ship!'" she told Future Dude. "[Uhura] was strong, confident, and well-written. The studio nearly lost their minds and there would be re-writes." However, she said that Gene Roddenberry would help restore her lines, and as her character became a stronger role, the studio forgot to cut them.

While Nichelle Nichols loved playing Lieutenant Uhura on "Star Trek," there came a point when she wanted to return to the world of theater, per the Archive of American Television. However, she had a fateful encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a fundraising event.

Nichelle Nichols' decision to stay with Star Trek, and her lasting impact

Nichelle Nichols told Dr. King that she was going to leave the role, and he told her point blank that she could not. "For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people," she recalled him saying. "Your role is not a Black role. And it's not a female role. [Gene] can fill it with anything." At first, Nichols was not happy. "I remember being angry ... 'Why me?'" she asked herself. However, she ultimately didn't regret her decision to stay. "I've never looked back. I've never regretted it," she said (via YouTube).

Nichols went on to find other ways of making a lasting impact. In 1975, she founded Women in Motion Inc., a company that created educational materials using music, via The History Makers. The program was later expanded as an astronaut recruitment tool, when NASA asked Nichols in 1977 to be the spokesperson for their recruitment drive for women and people of color, per Black Past. Thousands of women and minorities applied as a result of the program, including Sally Ride, Ronald McNair, and Ellison Onizuka.

Post-"Star Trek," she had roles on several TV shows and the "Star Trek" feature films. She also did voice work for video games and shows like "Futurama" and "The Simpsons" (via IMDb).

Nichelle Nichols' personal life

In her autobiography titled "Beyond Uhura," Nichelle Nichols discussed the romantic relationships she had in her life. At 18 years old, she met and married dancer Foster Johnson, per Black History. She and Foster had a son, Kyle, but the couple got divorced that same year. Nichols also revealed that she had an affair with Gene Roddenberry before "Star Trek," while he was married, via the Heavy. In 1968, she married Duke Mondy, but the couple separated four years later in 1972, according to E Celebrity Spy.

In 2013, Nichols was diagnosed with dementia. She and her family became entangled in a legal battle in 2019, as they alleged that her manager, Gilbert Bell, took advantage of her, via Indie Wire. The family asserts that Bell "exerted his undue influence and took control over Ms. Nichols' assets and personal affairs."

Despite her legal battles, Nichelle Nichols will always be remembered for her talent, and how she helped change NASA and the entertainment industry for the better. It seemed as though she was happy with the way her life turned out. When asked by San Francisco News how she changed over the years, Nichols responded, "I've changed so much. And I've learned so much more about myself. I've let go the unhappy and sad moments of my life so that the very positive, good feeling can take root ... Yes, I think Nichelle Nichols has turned out rather good."