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In Memoriam|

Photo: Nichelle Nichols (Photo from NASA) | Nichelle Nichols, born Grace Dell Nichols; December 28, 1932 – July 30, 2022) was an American actress, singer, and dancer best known for her portrayal of Nyota Uhura in Star Trek and its film sequels. Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura was groundbreaking for African American actresses on American television. From 1977 until 2015, Nichols volunteered her time to promote NASA’s programs and to recruit diverse astronauts, including women and ethnic minorities.

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Nichols began her professional career as a singer and dancer in Chicago. She then toured the United States and Canada with the bands of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. In 1959, she appeared as the principal dancer in the film version of Porgy and Bess. Nichols’ break came in an appearance in Kicks and Co., Oscar Brown’s highly touted but ill-fated 1961 musical. In a thinly veiled satire of Playboy magazine, she played Hazel Sharpe, a voluptuous campus queen who was being tempted by the devil and Orgy Magazine to become “Orgy Maiden of the Month”. Although the play closed after a short run in Chicago, Nichols attracted the attention of Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, who booked her as a singer for his Chicago Playboy Club. She also appeared in the role of Carmen for a Chicago stock company production of Carmen Jones and performed in a New York production of Porgy and Bess. Between acting and singing engagements, Nichols did occasional modeling work.

In January 1967, Nichols also was featured on the cover of Ebony magazine, and had two feature articles in the publication in five years. Nichols continued touring the United States, Canada, and Europe as a singer with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands. On the West Coast, she appeared in The Roar of the Greasepaint and For My People and she garnered high praise for her performance in the James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie. Prior to being cast as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, Nichols was a guest actress on television producer Gene Roddenberry’s first series The Lieutenant (1964) in an episode, “To Set It Right”, which dealt with racial prejudice.

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On Star Trek, Nichols was one of the first Black women featured in a major television series. Her prominent supporting role as a bridge officer was unprecedented. Nichols was once tempted to leave the series; however, a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. changed her mind. Towards the end of the first season, Nichols was given the opportunity to take a role on Broadway. She preferred the stage to the television studio, so she decided to take the role. Nichols went to Roddenberry’s office, told him that she planned to leave, and handed him her resignation letter. Roddenberry tried to convince Nichols to stay but to no avail, so he told her to take the weekend off and if she still felt that she should leave then he would give her his blessing. That weekend, Nichols attended a banquet that was being run by the NAACP, where she was informed that a fan really wanted to meet her.

I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room and whoever the fan was had to wait because there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch. [She told King about her plans to leave the series because she wanted to take a role that was tied to Broadway.] I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘you cannot, you cannot… for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers.” Dr. King Jr went further stating “If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a black role, and is not a female role; he can fill it with anybody even an alien.”

King personally encouraged her to stay on the series, saying she “could not give up” because she was playing a vital role model for Black children and young women across the country, as well as for other children who would see Black people appearing as equals, going so far as to favorably compare her work on the series to the marches of the ongoing civil rights movement. This response by King left Nichols speechless, allowing her to realize how important to the civil rights movement her role was, and the next day she went back to Roddenberry’s office to tell him that she would stay. When she told Roddenberry what King had said, tears came to his eyes. Nichols asked Roddenberry for her role back and Roddenberry took out her resignation letter, which he had already torn up. Former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison has cited Nichols’ role of Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut and Whoopi Goldberg has also spoken of Nichols’ influence. Goldberg asked for a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the character Guinan was specially created, while Jemison appeared on an episode of the series.

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Music
Nichols released two music albums. Down to Earth is a collection of standards released in 1967, during the original run of Star Trek. Out of This World, released in 1991, is more rock-oriented and is themed around Star Trek and space exploration.

As Uhura, Nichols sang songs on the Star Trek episodes “Charlie X” and “The Conscience of the King”.

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In June 2015, Nichols suffered a mild stroke at her Los Angeles home and was admitted to a Los Angeles–area hospital. A magnetic resonance imaging scan [MRI] confirmed a small stroke had occurred, and she began inpatient therapy. In early 2018, Nichols was diagnosed with dementia, and subsequently announced her retirement from convention appearances.

Following a legal dispute over the actions of her manager-turned-caretaker Gilbert Bell, her son Kyle Johnson filed for conservatorship in 2018. Before a court granted his petition in January 2019, Nichols’ friend Angelique Fawcette, who had already expressed concern in 2017 over Bell’s control of access to her, pressed for visitation rights, including by opposing Johnson’s petition. That dispute and a 2019 court case by Bell over being evicted from the guesthouse on Nichols’ property were both ongoing as of August 2021.

Nichols died of heart failure in Silver City, New Mexico, on July 30, 2022, at the age of 89.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nichelle_Nichols

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