Nichelle Nichols is an American actress, singer and voice artist. She is best known for starring as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, making her one of the first African American female characters to play a role other than a servant. She was a role model for female women of colour, and inspired many to join NASA including astronaut Mae Jemison.
Nichols was born in 1932 in Robbins, Illinois. From a young age, she was interested in singing and acting and was inspired by African-American female singers like Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt. Her parents encouraged her talents, and she studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy. She began her professional performing career at the age of 14, and while still a teenager she sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Nichols began the tour as a ballet dancer, and ended it as his lead singer. Nichols toured the U.S., Canada and Europe with both Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton’s respective Orchestra’s.
In 1959, Nichols made her film debut as a dancer in a film adaptation of Porgy and Bess, she had previously performed in a New York production of the film. She continued to work in film and television, and in 1964 was a guest actress in Gene Roddenberry’s The Lieutenant. The episode she appeared in, ‘To Set it Right’ dealt with racial prejudice. Roddenberry then cast Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek. The name “Uhura” was adapted from “uhuru,” the Swahili word for “freedom.” Nichols’ role made television history, as she was one of the first black women cast in a non-servant character role. In 1968, she made history once more when her character shared television’s first interracial kiss with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Initially, Nichols had only intended to stay with the show for one series, but Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged her to stay in the role, as she was providing a positive role model to black women and portraying a character that was seen as equal. The series ended in 1969, and Nichols went on to reprise her role in subsequent Star Trek films and voiced Uhura in the animated series. She would later inspire NASA astronaut Mae Jemison to become the first African-American woman to travel in space.
Nichols appearance in Star Trek led to her working with NASA in the late 1970’s and 80’s to help with a highly effective campaign to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program in affiliation with Women in Motion, Inc, her consultancy firm. Nichols received NASA’s distinguished Public Service Award for her efforts, and helped to recruit many astronauts including Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut. Since the mid-1980’s, Nichols has served on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organisation founded by Dr. Wernher von Braun.
In 1991, Nichols became the first African American to place her handprints and signature in the concrete outside Mann’s (Graumans) Chinese Theater, and a year later she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1994, she published her autobiography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories and has also written two science fiction novels Saturn’s Child and Saturna’s Quest. In addition to this, she has appeared in a range of films, television shows and theatrical productions and has been nominated for the Chicago theatrical Sarah Siddons Award for Best Actress on two occasions.