Nichelle Nichols, the trailblazing actress who broke barriers for Black women on-screen and off-screen, has died at 89 years old.
Nichols’ son Kyle Johnson announced her death on Sunday, writing on the actress’ Facebook page: “Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Nichols will forever be remembered for her role on Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura, the Enterprise‘s commanding and whip-smart communications officer. As one of the first Black women to play a leading role on network television, Nichols was often at the vanguard of social change. After the show’s first season concluded, she quit the series to return to her work on Broadway, only to reverse her decision when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. begged her to remain on Star Trek. In the show’s third season, she and William Shatner exchanged the first kiss between a black person and a white person on American broadcast television; though the network was fearful of blowback, Paramount received more fan mail than it had ever gotten for a single Star Trek episode.
But Nichols’s influence on social progress extended far beyond television. Beginning in 1977, she teamed up with NASA to recruit women and people of color as astronauts, inspiring thousands of applications—including Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space. “Nichelle’s advocacy transcended television and transformed NASA,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “After Apollo 11, Nichelle made it her mission to inspire women and people of color to join this agency, change the face of STEM, and explore the cosmos. Nichelle’s mission is NASA’s mission. Today, as we work to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon under Artemis, NASA is guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols.”
Over the weekend, tributes to Nichols poured in on social media. Some came from fellow members of the Trek universe, like her co-star George Takei and her successor Celia Rose Gooding (now portraying a younger Cadet Uhura on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds), while others came from astronauts, Trekkies, and people all around the world. Below, we’ve rounded up some of our favorites. Live long and prosper, Ms. Nichols.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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