US actor Nichelle Nichols, who achieved worldwide fame and broke ground for Black women while playing Lt Uhura in the original Star Trek TV hit in the 1960s, has died at 89, her family announced on Sunday.
Nichols’s son, Kyle Johnson, announced her death via Facebook.
Nichols had a stroke in 2015 and her son said she died on Saturday, July 30, as she “succumbed to natural causes”.
“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” he wrote on Instagram.
Cast as Nyota Uhura, her character was in a position of authority and had a high profile on screen, on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise space vehicle.
“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,” Johnson wrote.
Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, in 1932 and grew up in Chicago.
Co-star George Takei tweeted that his heart was heavy, “my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend” and he would have more to say on the “incomparable” trailblazer soon.
Prominent Georgia Democrat and voting rights organizer Stacey Abrams, who is running again for the state governorship and is a longtime massive Star Trek fan, tweeted a picture of herself with Nichols.
“One of my most treasured photos – Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior and tremendous actor. Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars,” she wrote.
Nichols’s role in the 1966-69 series as Lt Uhura earned her a lifelong position of honor with the series’ rabid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies.
It also brought her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited Black women to acting roles as servants and included an interracial onscreen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.
Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spinoffs starting in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and frequented Star Trek fan conventions.
She also served for many years as a recruiter for the US space agency Nasa, helping bring more minorities and women into the astronaut corps.
The original Star Trek premiered on NBC on 8 September 1966. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the far-off future, the 23rd century, human diversity would be fully accepted.
“I think many people took it into their hearts … that what was being said on TV at that time was a reason to celebrate,” Nichols said in 1992 when a Star Trek exhibit was on view at the Smithsonian Institution.
She often recalled how civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was a fan of the show and praised her role.
She met him at a civil rights gathering in 1967, at a time when she had decided not to return for the show’s second season.
“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and I was the show, he became very serious leaving and said ‘You cannot do that’,” she told The Tulsa World in a 2008 interview.
“’You’ve changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you’ve changed the minds of people’,” she said the civil rights leader told her.
Nichols said: “That foresight Dr King had a lightning bolt in my life.”
More recently, she had a recurring role on television’s Heroes, playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.
Nichols, trained as a dancer and also worked as a nightclub chanteuse, with the Washington Post reporting that she thought being cast in Star Trek would be a “nice stepping stone” to Broadway stage fame, not realizing that the TV show and her character would be an iconic and enduring smash hit.
Actor Wilson Cruz wrote on Twitter that “representation matters”.
Nichols “modeled it for us. With her very presence and her grace she shone a light on who we as people of color are and inspired us to reach for our potential. Rest well, glittering diamond in the sky,” he wrote.
The Smithsonian tweeted a picture of Lt Uhura’s iconic red mini-dress and noted that Nichols made “history for African American women in TV and film. Nichols also volunteered to recruit women and people of color for NASA.”