Newswise — It was only intended as a “nice steppingstone” to Broadway fame.
That is how Nichelle Nichols viewed the role of communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in which she was cast for the original “Star Trek” series of the 1960s.
But the part, which saw her serve on the bridge of the starship Enterprise alongside all-male officers, was so much more: a Black woman in a significant role on primetime television, a role that defied Hollywood stereotypes of women of color playing domestic workers.
Nichols, who portrayed Lt. Uhura in all three seasons of the sci-fi series and in six of the franchise’s motion pictures, died July 30 at the age of 89.
“A pioneer who helped overcome the barriers for Blacks on TV and the big screen” is how Donald Spivey, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Miami and special advisor to the president on racial justice, described her. “Hopefully, today’s generation appreciates her helping to break barriers,” Spivey said.
Born on Dec. 28, 1932, in the Chicago suburb of Robbins, Illinois, Nichols was discovered at the age of 15 by iconic African American jazz composer Duke Ellington while serving as a choreographer and dancer in a ballet for one of his musical suites, according to the National Space Society’s website.
But it was “Star Trek,” which became immensely popular in syndication, that helped launch Nichols to stardom.
“She was one of the first African American female leads on an American network prime time television series. As such, she became an inspiration and role model to many women and teens of color hoping to someday break into the world of television and the space program,” said Mitchell Shapiro, a professor in the School of Communication and the author of several books on television and radio programming.
Nichols, who was cast in the role of Uhura by “Star Trek” creator and University of Miami alumnus Gene Roddenberry, was famous for taking part in what is believed to be the first interracial kiss on U.S. television. In the “Star Trek” episode Plato’s Stepchildren, Lt. Uhura and Capt. James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner, smooch while under mind control by an alien race.
“This did cause a bit of controversy at the time, but it did show that things had progressed since the 1950s when, for example, Alan Freed’s rock music/dance show was canceled after it showed a Black and a White teenager dancing with each other,” Shapiro said.
Nichols actually considered leaving the series after its first season but had a change of heart after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., while the two were at an NAACP fundraiser, convinced her to stay on.
“Star Trek portrayed a vision of the future, and in this future, different cultures, ethnicities, and even species were presented as equals,” Shapiro stated.
Even after the “Star Trek” TV series ended, Nichols maintained a role in the space industry, volunteering at NASA, where she helped recruit women and people of color.
Said Terri Francis, associate professor of cinematic arts and associate dean of inclusion and outreach at the School of Communication, “Nichol’s crucial off-screen efforts to promote diversity at NASA illustrate the profound and tender ways in which Black representation truly does matter in the struggle for equity and human dignity.”