Nichelle Nichols, who played starship communications officer Lieutenant Uhura on the 1960s sci-fi TV series Star Trek and subsequent films, broke colour barriers and helped redefine roles for Black actors, has died at the age of 89, according to her family.
Nichols, whose fans included Martin Luther King Jr. and a young Barack Obama, “suffered from natural causes and passed away” on Saturday night, according to her son, Kyle Johnson, who posted the news on Facebook.
“Her light, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time,” Johnson wrote, “will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by.”
In a statement, US President Joe Biden said, “Our nation has lost a trailblazer of stage and screen in Nichelle Nichols, who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women.”
“Our nation will be eternally grateful to inspiring artists like Nichelle Nichols, who show us a future where unity, dignity, and respect are pillars of every society,” President Biden concluded.
By casting Black and minority actors in high-profile roles on the original Star Trek series, which became a pop culture phenomenon, the show shattered stereotypes common on US television at the time.
Nichols and Star Trek actor William Shatner broke a cultural barrier in 1968 when they shared the first interracial kiss on US television.
Nichols had planned to leave Star Trek after one season, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the 1960s civil rights leader, persuaded her to stay because having a Black woman play an important senior crew member at a time when Black people were fighting for equality in American society was revolutionary. According to the Star Trek Twitter account, she was “a trailblazer, an inspiration, and so much more.”