Actress with an Unexpected Influence
Today, successful actors play the same role on TV or in the movies for quite awhile, but often when they want to try something new they leave the series. It was like that in the 1960s when Black actress Nichelle Nichols who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, communications officer of the Starship “Enterprise” on the popular TV series Star Trek, sought new opportunities. Yet, because of some unexpected encouragement from an unusual source, she chose to remain in the part. And as she did so she became a continuing unexpected influence on those around her.
Grace Dell Nichols was born in December, 1932 to a suburban Chicago family, her father the town mayor and her mother a local chief magistrate. Yet when she asked for a different first name her parents offered “Nichelle”—which they related meant “victorious maiden”—from the Greek deity Nike. Nichelle and her family continued to live in suburban Chicago and graduated from high school in 1951.
As an actress, Ms. Nichols’ first break came in a highly publicized but unsuccessful musical. However, after other productions, in other local productions and she did some modeling.
Then in January, 1967 Nichols achieved national recognition when she appeared on the cover and in articles in Ebony magazine, a major national Black publication at the time. Also, as a talented singer, she later toured with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands. After moving to the West Coast she began to appear in plays as well in several television series. One of these was produced by Gene Roddenberry who then cast her as Uhura on his new series Star Trek. This was of course a futuristic science fiction series based on the adventures of a “starship” as it “traveled where no one had gone before.” Over the years fans of the series format became known as “Trekkies.”
Though today Star Trek is considered a classic, and its stars (along with Nichols) achieved almost cult-like status with thousands of fans, at the time the series was only moderately successful. It only ran a few years, but then as fan interest increased the series was brought to theater screens with the original stars. There followed several wildly successful Star Trek movies and several other plot related TV series—set a future story line so there were new casts.
Yet during the run of the original series in the 1960s, Ms. Nichols as Uhura definitely had her fans, and she met one at a social event. At that time Black women rarely appeared in major roles, particularly in commanding roles like Uhura—so this was an important part. In fact one source called her as “one of the first Black women featured in a major television series.”
However, like many actors, Ms. Nichols wanted to try new parts, so she decided to leave “Star Trek” and seek other opportunities. Yet when she informed the producer that she wanted to leave, he tried to dissuade her, suggesting she take some time to think about it.
In 2011 Ms. Nichols explained her intentions at the time: “I grew up in musical theater. To me, the highlight and the epitome of my life as a singer and actor and a dancer/choreographer, was to star on Broadway. And as my popularity grew, once the show was on the air, I was beginning to get all kinds of offers. And I decided I was going to leave, go to New York and make my way on the Broadway stage. Then a funny thing happened.”
One evening when Ms. Nichols attended a NAACP banquet someone there told her that she had a special fan who wanted to meet her.
She later described what happened: “I thought it was a Trekkie, so I said, ‘Sure.’ Then I looked across the room and whoever the fan was had to wait because there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking toward me with a big grin on his face.” He was the “Trekkie!”
The ebullient Dr. King told her not only was he a great fan, but that Star Trek was the only TV show he and his wife allowed his children to stay up to watch. As they chatted, she mentioned that she was planning to leave the show, and he advised her not to since in that role she provided encouragement to many viewers. Particularly African Americans and also young women. At the time if Blacks appeared on TV they often played a servile part, but Nichols’ role was different. He told her: “You cannot, you cannot,[leave] …for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, beautiful people who can sing, dance and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers.”
He went on explaining that Uhura was an example especially for Black children and women—both in ordinary life and particularly during the then current Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Nichols commented in 2011 about her ultimate results of her remaining in the role: “Here I was projecting in the 23rd century what should have been quite simple. We’re on a starship. I was head communications officer.” She recalled one comment from multi-award winning actress Whoopi Goldberg, who later appeared on several “Star Trek” series. She said, “I met Whoopi Goldberg …she had told me Star Trek came on when she was nine-years-old. She said she turned the TV on and saw me and ran through the house screaming: ‘Come, come quick! There’s a Black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!’”
So after the banquet, Ms. Nichols returned to the producer, related Dr. King’s comments and when her resignation was rescinded, she remained with the role. Interestingly enough, one Black girl (later NASA astronaut Mae Jemison) later said that Uhura’s presence on the Enterprise bridge, inspired her to become an astronaut.
When the original series was cancelled in 1969 Ms. Nichols then took on other roles. But over the next several years continued her role as of Uhura in continuing Star Trek productions. Also, she voiced Uhura in an animated version of the series, where in one episode she assumes command of the Enterprise. She was in the subsequent Star Trek films, and also continued to do voice work for animated films as well as in person, in other films and on stage.
Also after the Star Trek series, Ms. Nichols began to work with NASA, to help recruit women and minorities to the space programs. Recruits included astronaut Dr. Sally Ride, first American female astronaut. Also Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair, who flew succession shuttle programs before their deaths in January, 1986, in the horrific Space Shuttle “Challenger” disaster.
As a musician, Ms. Nichols composed and sang in a film, that she produced and choreographed. She had also performed and sang three numbers in the original Star Trek series and also released two albums at that time.
More recently Ms. Nichols was cast in a daytime drama, The Young and the Restless and received an Emmy nomination for her role in 2017.
Nichelle Nichols passed away in July, 2022.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.