Nichelle Nichols, pioneering Star Trek actress, dies at 89

Pioneer of Star Trek actor and space defender Nichelle Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89 years old.

Her death was first reported by her son, Kyle Johnson. facebook and later confirmed by Variety with his talent manager and business partner, Gilbert Bell.

“Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, passed away from natural causes and passed away,” Johnson said. posted on Nichols’ official Facebook as well as instagram pages on Sunday. “However, its light, like the ancient galaxies now visible for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn and be inspired by.”

“Her life was well lived and became a model for all of us,” he added. “I and the rest of our family would appreciate your patience and indulgence as we grieve her loss until we can recover enough to speak further.”

Grace Dell Nichols was born on December 1st. On October 28, 1932, near Chicago, Nichols was a performer of many talents.

Her career in the entertainment industry began when she was only 16, as a singer with Duke Ellington in a ballet she choreographed for one of his compositions. Although she continued to work as a model and dancer, Nichols toured the world as a singer with big bands led by Ellington and Lionel Hampton.

Nichols made her film debut alongside Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1959 film “Porgy and Bess” and a few years later began working on television. She then landed a role for life as a lieutenant. Nyota Uhura, communications officer for the USS Enterprise, in the original Star Trek television series.

African-American women have appeared on television before, but usually they played the role of servants. When Star Trek began in 1966, Nichols’ significant role in the primetime series was a major television milestone.

Academy Award-winning actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg credits Nichols for inspiring her acting career.

“When I was 9 years old, Star Trek began. I looked at it and went shouting all over the house: “Come here, mom, everyone, come quickly, come quickly, there’s a black lady on TV, and she’s not a maid!Goldberg said. “I knew right away that I could be anyone.”

Nichols remained with Star Trek throughout its original run, which ended in 1969, and appeared in subsequent Star Trek films.

However, she originally planned to retire after her first year on the show. As Nichols explained in a 2011 PBS interview, she changed her mind after a chance meeting at an NAACP event.

“One of the promoters came up and said someone wants to meet me. He said he was my biggest fan,” Nichols said. “I thought it was some kind of trekker, some kid. I turned in my seat and there it was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a big smile on your face. He said, “I’m a trekker, I’m your biggest fan.”

King encouraged Nichols to stay on the show.

“He told me why I can’t [resign]’ she recalled. “He said that I had the first non-stereotypical role, I had a role with honor, dignity and intelligence. He said: “You just can’t abdicate, it’s an important role. That’s why we march. We never thought we’d see this on TV.”

In November 1968, Nichols made history when her Star Trek character kissed Captain James T. Kirk, played by white actor William Shatner. This scene is often called first interracial kiss on American television.

During her long acting career, Nichols has appeared in several other productions on the small and big screens, including the NBC series Heroes and films such as Supernatural and Bitter Land. She also voices animated programs such as Futurama and Batman: The Animated Series.

Nichols as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek episode. "Journey to Babylon" originally broadcast on 11 November.  17, 1967.
Nichols as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek episode “Journey to Babylon” originally broadcast on November 11. 17, 1967.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Nichols is best remembered for her career in the entertainment industry, but she also left behind another legacy: as a woman who devoted decades of her life to protecting space exploration, especially among women and minorities.

Space lover, Nichols served on Board of Governors of the National Space Society, a non-profit organization for the protection of space, and was reportedly an active leader of the now defunct Space Cadets of America. She also founded the consulting firm Women in Motion, which partnered with NASA to recruit minorities and women for the space agency. Her recruits included Guyon Blueford, the first African American astronaut in space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut.

Nichols Receives Distinguished NASA Award Public Service Award for her efforts in this area. An asteroid was even named after her.

In recent years, Nichols has retired from public and professional appearances due to a string of health failures. She has reportedly been battling dementia since 2013. had a mild stroke two years later. Until her death, Nichols was at the center fierce battle for conservatorship over her estate between her longtime talent manager Bell and her son amid allegations of abuse elsewhere; it sparked new interest in the #FreeBritney movement around Britney Spears.

She made her last public appearance at Los Angeles Comic-Con in December 2021 as part of a three-day farewell celebration of her pioneering career.