Black History is American History – February 26

February 26, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

Nichelle Nichols (1932)

Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Nichols on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois. Her father was both the town mayor and its chief magistrate. Her parents, Samuel Earl and Lishia (Parks) Nichols, encouraged her early interest in singing and acting. Nichols studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy and aspired to perform on Broadway; she admired African-American female vocalists such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Mahalia Jackson.

In her early career, Nichols sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. She made her film debut in 1959, as an uncredited dancer in a film adaptation of the opera “Porgy and Bess” starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis Jr. For her work in the theater, she was twice nominated for the “Sara Siddon Award” as best actress and is an accomplished dancer and singer. Her first “Siddon” nomination was for her portrayal of Hazel Sharp in “Kicks and Co.,” and the second for her performance in “The Blacks.” Nichols also began to work in television, including an appearance on the series “The Lieutenant” in 1964 where she met Gene Roddenberry which led to an offer from him to join the cast of “Star Trek.” She was ultimately cast in the now-legendary series as Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer for the Starship Enterprise. (The name “Uhura” was adapted from “uhuru,” the Swahili word for “freedom.”)

Nichols’s groundbreaking television performance as an African-American woman in a confident, authoritative role drew immediate notice from Star Trek’s audience. Nichols, still envisioning herself as a theater performer, considered leaving the series after the first season. However, a conversation with the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., during which he told her she couldn’t give up—that she was a vital role model for young black women in America. Needless to say, she changed her mind.

Nichols appeared throughout the run of Star Trek, from 1966 to 1969. As Uhura, she enacted television’s first interracial kiss, with William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk in the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Nichols also appeared in six Star Trek motion pictures released between 1979 and 1991.

Nichols has added other movie credits to her resume, the film “Truck Turner” in 1974, the Disney comedy “Snow Dogs” in 2002, and the family comedy “Are We There Yet?” in 2005. She appeared as a recurring character in several episodes of the television series “Heroes” in 2007.

Nichols also made occasional returns to live performance, as in her one-woman show Reflections, a tribute to women of jazz and blues. She showcased her singing in two albums, Down to Earth and Out of This World.

Building on her name recognition from “Star Trek,” in the late 1970s and 1980s Nichols participated in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s efforts to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program. For her work, she received NASA’s distinguished Public Service Award. She has a consultant firm, “Women in Motion Inc.” through which she produced and starred in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum film “What’s in It for Me?”. Nichols flew aboard the C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn, on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission. She was also special guest at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena on July 17, 1976 to view the Viking probe’s soft landing on Mars. Along with the other cast members from the original Star Trek, she attended the christening of the first space shuttle, Enterprise, at Cape Canaveral. With all this, she has not neglected her singing making a series of video albums. She has written two science-fiction novels, Saturn’s Child and Saturna’s Quest. In 1994 she published her autobiography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories.