Women on Film: Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek Broke Barriers

Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was an inspiration in a time of racial strife.

Before Halle Barry, before Beyonce, and before Zoe Saldana – there was Nichelle Nichols, who boldly went where no African-American woman had gone before. Nichols played Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek, contributing to Gene Roddenberry’s utopist view of a multicultural future in space. Nichols’ Uhura was an breath of fresh air on the lily-white television screens of America in 1966.

But 1966 was also a year marking increasing racial tensions in America. To many, Uhura was more than just a TV character—she was an icon of inspiration, setting a standard of multicultural womanhood on television. Nichols was no housekeeper or “mammy,” but an intelligent space traveler working in a world of equality. Her fans include the first African-American astronaut in space Mae Jemison, who cites Nichols as her inspiration to go into space.

Nichols was born in 1932, in a small town near Chicago. Discovered by Duke Ellington as a teenager, the singer and dancer toured with Ellington and Lionel Hampton. She was cast on Star Trek after appearing in creator Gene Roddenberry’s initial foray into television, The Lieutenant.

During the first year of the series, Nichols considered leaving the show to perform on Broadway. However, Martin Luther King, Jr. himself convinced the actress to stay on as Lt. Uhura. She met the iconic Civil Rights leader at a NAACP event in 1966. As Nichols recalls the meeting, “He was telling me why I could not [resign],” she told the Daily News. “He said I had the first nonstereotypical role, I had a role with honor, dignity and intelligence. He said, ‘You simply cannot abdicate, this is an important role. This is why we are marching. We never thought we’d see this on TV.’”

Nichols decided to stay on the show and continued making milestones, including kissing William Shatner on the original Star Trek. This was by most accounts the first interracial kiss between a black woman and a white male on television. Here you can see Nichols discussing the kiss.

After Star Trek’s cancellation in 1969, Nichols went on to appear in all six film follow-ups. She has since served as recruiter for NASA to encourage women and minorities to join the program. Nichols has appeared on several boards and organizations to promote space travel and was present for the final liftoff of Atlantis, the last shuttle to fly into space. Today, she continues to be honored for her work both in television and advocacy.

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.