Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the 1960s Star Trek TV series, passed away in New Mexico on Saturday night, her son Kyle Johnson announced via social media. Nichols was the first African American woman to have a leading role on television.
Writing on Instagram on Sunday, Johnson said “I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years.”
Nichols’ death was also confirmed by her agent. She is said to have succumbed to natural causes, seven years after suffering a stroke.
Nichols was considered to be one of the most groundbreaking actresses of the 1960s, after she joined the cast of Star Trek in 1966 as communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura - the first figure of authority portrayed by a black actress on American TV. In 1968, she and Star Trek’s William Shatner became the first interracial couple to share a kiss on television.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Nichols’ portrayal of Lt. Uhura "the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history." Despite her success, Nichols at one point considered leaving the show for a career on Broadway, however, after meeting with Dr. King, she was convinced to stay until the original three-season run of the series ended in 1969. After that she featured in six Star Trek movie offshoots.
Following her role in Star Trek, Nichols was approached by NASA to encourage more women and people of color to pursue a career in space research. She became an ambassador for the space agency and was instrumental in recruiting astronauts like Sally Ride and Guion Bluford, the first American woman and the first African-American man to go to space. Nichols retired from space advocacy just last December during her final appearance at the LA Comic Con.
George Takei, best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek responded to Nichols’ death on twitter, writing: “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89.”
“For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend,” Takei said.