Nichelle Nichols: A ‘Star Trek’ Pioneer Who Overcame Bias to Soar

When a significant leisure trade determine dies, I make a degree of looking out Selection’s archives to seek out the individual’s first look in our pages. The timing and context of a person’s Selection debut is usually extraordinarily telling concerning the arc of their profession. 

I did my common search after the unhappy information broke July 31 that actor-singer Nichelle Nichols, the legendary Lt. Uhura of the unique “Star Trek” collection and a real TV pioneer, had died at age 89. What I discovered made me wince. This journey again in time introduced me face to face with the ugly historical past of racism and segregation within the leisure enterprise, as documented in our protection. 

It was jarring to see how completely commonplace it was for the trade to otherize Black performers within the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s when Nichols started her profession as a singer and actor. 

The primary point out of Nichols in Selection got here in a small advert within the June 20, 1960, version for Ye Little Membership, a nightclub on North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills (roughly the place Wally’s is right now). The blurb promoted numerous upcoming performers, together with “the sepia sensation, Nichelle Nichols.” 

The primary reference to Nichols in a Selection story was no higher. That got here 9 days later in a constructive evaluation of her Ye Little Membership present. Our reviewer referred to as her a “sepia thrush” and “a looker who enlivens her flip additional by accentuating derriere actions.”  

Via the late Nineteen Sixties, most Selection references to Nichols make point out of her race, all the time as a qualifier to her work: She was a “Negro songstress” when she was signed to Epic. She was a “sepia singer” in an merchandise about her becoming a member of the solid of the 1966 James Garner thriller “Mr. Buddwing.” 

By the early Seventies, as “Star Trek” made her a much bigger identify and cultural norms started to alter, Selection now not routinely labeled Nichols by race. However these early mentions, though not overtly derogatory for the period, stand out as such a press release about how institutional Hollywood handled Black industryites with a racial asterisk. 

The truth is, Nichols’ Lt. Uhura is the character that the majority embodies the progressive, inclusive and hopeful spirit that has sustained “Star Trek” for almost 60 years. Lt. Uhura was a Black girl who greater than held her personal with William Shatner’s Capt. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock and all the opposite Starfleet officers on the bridge of the Enterprise. 

Fortunately, there have been no qualifiers for Lt. Uhura in “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s imaginative and prescient of the long run. And simply as fortunately, Nichols had the unquestionable expertise and dedication to make that character an everlasting image of progress.

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