Now I said our series would be about those who you may not know about, but I am also including two figures you may not know the whole story about. This is one of the later.
Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in a suburb of Chicago, where her father a favor work became Mayor and Chief Magistrate. She hated her name and asked her parents to let her change it. They suggested Nichelle, which they said meant "victorious maiden".
Ms. Nichols began her professional career as a singer and dancer in Chicago. She then toured the United States and Canada with the bands of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. She also became a stage actress, and occasionally modeling.
In 1967, Nichols, was cast in the role that made her a pop culture icon. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on Star Trek. She was one of the first Black women featured in a major television series. And fo her to be a bridge officer was unprecedented at that time. The series didn’t stop with her though. There were black actors cast as doctors, brilliant scientists, captains and admirals.
She told a great story about being part of Star Trek in an NPR interveiw in 2011. Nichelle was very discouraged after the first season of Star Trek. Her character’s lines kept getting cut, she was getting all kinds of racist mail, and she really dreamed of being a Broadway star and the offers for that started to roll in. She went so far as to draft her resignation letter.
But before she turned it in, she went an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills. One of the promoters of the event took her aside and said someone who was a huge fan of her and the show wanted to talk to her. She, of course, espected a typical Trekker, but up to her walked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He warmly greeted her and told her he was a huge fan of hers and the show.
She basically thanked him, but said she was just the black lady on the bridge who answered the space phone. He changed her mind about that and quitting saying “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol, If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.’ He compared the importance of her staying to marching in civil rights marches, etc. Well she did stay for the series, the movies, the conventions, all of it.
But that wasn’t her biggest contribution to space and space exploration. After the TV series ended, she was approached by NASA. NASA realized they had, to say the least, a bit of diversity issue. With exactly zero black astronauts at the time and the same number of women, they knew they had to change that. And they asked her to be part of an effort to recruit both.
The program was a huge success. Among those recruited were Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and United States Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, as well as Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair, who both flew successful missions during the Space Shuttle program before their deaths in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. Former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison cited Nichols' role of Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration for becoming an astronaut. Recruits also included Charles Bolden, the former NASA administrator and veteran of four shuttle missions, Frederick D. Gregory, former deputy administrator and a veteran of three shuttle missions and Lori Garver, former deputy administrator. She served from the mid-1980s on the board of governors of the National Space Institute (today's National Space Society), a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organization.
So, now you know a bit of why Nichelle wasn’t just an actress, she actually changed the world by being one. And to this day her character is still a vital part of the Star Trek lore with Zoe Saldana playing the character in movies and Celia Rose Gooding playing the character in Star Trek Strange New Worlds, as she says playing Uhura the way Nichelle would have in the 1960's if they had let her. Nichelle Nichols died in 2022.
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