During the 1960s, seeing a Black actor, male or female, on television caused African-American families to stop whatever they were doing so they could grab a seat and tune in.
This writer remembers two actresses in particular, Diahann Carroll who played Julia in the same-titled, family-friendly series – a nurse raising her little boy alone after the death of her husband.
But if you wanted a taste of “out of this world” beauty, poise and regality, then you had to check out the talented and sultry Nichelle Nichols.
Nichols, served as one of the first Black women to have a leading role in a TV series before later working with NASA to recruit minorities for the space program. She recently died at 89 in Silver City, New Mexico. But she will always be both remembered and revered by “Star Trek” fans for her role as Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the starship USS Enterprise.
The cause was heart failure according to a spokesperson for the family who announced her death at the behest of her son, Kyle Johnson.
Nichols, born in Chicago, enjoyed a long career as an entertainer, first as a teenage supper-club singer and dancer in her hometown before moving on to television.
But she will forever be best remembered for her work on “Star Trek,” the cult-inspiring space adventure series that aired from 1966 to 1969 and starred William Shatner as Captain Kirk, the heroic leader of the starship crew; Leonard Nimoy as his science officer and adviser, Mr. Spock, an ultra-logical humanoid from the planet Vulcan; and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, a.k.a. Bones, the ship’s physician.
Nichols brought ethnic splendor to the bridge of the Enterprise, often sporting a form-fitting, red doublet and black tights.
In fact, Ebony magazine once described her as the “most heavenly body in ‘Star Trek” when the iconic publication featured her on its 1967 cover. But one should not assume that she served as just a pretty face on the show. In her role as Uhura, Nichols represented a highly-educated, well-trained technician and officer who consistently displayed a businesslike demeanor.
Until Carroll and Nichols joined the small screen world, Black women rarely portrayed anything other than subservient roles.
One of the more lasting memories of the show’s third and final season would be in November 1968, when Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura would be forced to embrace at the order of inhabitants from a strange planet. That scene made history and has been considered to be the first interracial kiss in television history.
Nichols’s first appearances on “Star Trek” predated the 1968 sitcom “Julia,” in which Carroll, playing a widowed mother , became the first Black woman to star in a non-stereotypical role in a network series.
Grace Dell Nichols was born in Robbins, Ill., on Dec. 28, 1932 (some sources give a later year), and grew up in Chicago. Her father, a chemist, was the mayor of Robbins for a time. At 13 or 14, tired of being called Gracie by her friends, she requested a different name from her mother, who liked Michelle but suggested Nichelle for the alliteration.
Nichols was a ballet dancer as a child and had a singing voice with a naturally wide range — more than four octaves, she later said. While attending Englewood High School in Chicago she landed her first professional gig, in a revue at the College Inn, a well-known nightspot in the city. She was spotted there by Duke Ellington, who employed her a year or two later with his touring orchestra as a dancer in one of his jazz suites.
She made her television debut in 1963 in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” a short-lived dramatic series, created by Gene Roddenberry, about Marines at Camp Pendleton. Roddenberry went on to create “Star Trek.”
She appeared on other television shows over the years — among them “Peyton Place” (1966), “Head of the Class” (1988) and “Heroes” (2007). She also appeared onstage in Los Angeles, including in a one-woman show in which she did impressions of, and paid homage to, Black female entertainers who preceded her, including Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt.
However, Uhura would serve as her legacy. A decade after “Star Trek” went off the air, she reprised the role in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and she appeared as Uhura, by then a commander, in five subsequent movie sequels through 1991. One story about her decision to leave the show illustrates the significance of her role.
When asked if she would meet a “fan,” she discovered he was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King said her role as a dignified, authoritative figure in a popular show was too important to the cause of civil rights for her to forgo. She recalled, in her memoirs, Dr. King saying, “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should be seen every day.”
She stayed on the show.
Farewell to a legendary actress who opened the door for scores of Black women to follow in her footsteps.