‘Star Trek’ star Nichelle Nichols remembered in Robbins, her hometown
A little piece of a legend still lives on in her hometown, a small village southwest of Chicago, while most of Nichelle Nichols’ fans worldwide know her for roles in “Star Trek” and at NASA.
Nichols still kept in touch with her local roots, though, said Tyrone Haymore, executive director and co-founder of the Robbins History Museum. For some 20 years, the museum has been home to one of Nichols’ outfits from her time playing Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original “Star Trek” series. She visited Illinois “many times since becoming a star,” Haymore said, and he got to meet her on several occasions.
Nichols died Saturday night, her son Kyle Johnson announced online. She was 89.
“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” Johnson wrote on Nichols’ Instagram page and Lt. Uhura website. “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 was born in the village of Robbins on Dec. 28, 1932, according to an online biography. Her father, Samuel Earl Nichols, worked in a factory and also served as the mayor and chief magistrate of Robbins. Mother Lishia Mae Nichols was a homemaker. The family moved to Chicago when Nichols was a child, where she studied dance at the Chicago Ballet.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement Sunday the city “lost a daughter” with Nichols’ passing.
“The long arc of her iconic and storied career all began in our great city,” Lightfoot said. “Nichelle was a trailblazer, paving the way for Black women on the small and big screen alike.”
Haymore said her “Star Trek” uniform was given to the museum by Paramount Pictures, and the Art Institute donated a special case to keep the uniform in. He said many people have offered him “big money” for the uniform, but he has denied them all because to him, it’s the most valuable artifact in the museum.
The Nichols exhibit also features photos of her from her time on “Star Trek” as well as a photo with former President Barack Obama and news clippings about her, including one from the Daily Southtown in 1993 about a visit to Robbins.
Haymore said he “used to watch as many Star Trek movies” as he could growing up, but he had no idea that his favorite character, Lt. Uhura, was played by a woman from his small town.
“I was blown out of my mind when we got word that she was actually born in Robbins,” he said. “This being a predominantly Black community, we weren’t used to seeing very many Black people on TV back in those days. So we weren’t watching ‘Star Trek’ because we knew she was from Robbins. We were watching it because it was such an exciting program that features space travel and had a Black woman there.”
The first time Haymore met Nichols was in the early 1990s during one of her visits. Haymore was the village clerk at the time. He said the village was putting out a coloring book about the history of Robbins, and Nichols provided some wording for the book and was featured inside.
President Joe Biden said in a statement Sunday that Nichols was someone “who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women.”
“A daughter of a working-class family from Illinois, she first honed her craft as an actor and singer in Chicago before touring the country and the world performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and giving life to the words of James Baldwin,” Biden said.
“During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she shattered stereotypes to become the first Black woman to act in a major role on a primetime television show with her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek,” he continued. “With a defining dignity and authority, she helped tell a central story that reimagined scientific pursuits and discoveries. And she continued this legacy by going on to work with NASA to empower generations of Americans from every background to reach for the stars and beyond. Our nation is forever indebted to inspiring artists like Nichelle Nichols, who show us a future where unity, dignity, and respect are cornerstones of every society.”
It was during the late 1940s that Nichols was discovered by jazz legend Ellington, and she toured with Ellington and Lionel Hampton as a lead singer and dancer, according to her biography.
Nichols made her acting debut in the 1959 film “Porgy and Bess.” Her first TV role was on “The Lieutenant” in 1964. She also recorded two albums, “Down to Earth” in 1968 and “Out of This World” in 1991.
She was cast as Lt. Uhura in 1966, which marked one of the first times that a Black actress played a non-stereotypical role on TV, according to her biography. Nichols continued to play the character in the “Star Trek” TV series and in subsequent films.
In a video about Nichols on the Smithsonian Channel, she talked about a kissing scene between herself and William Shatner, who played Capt. James T. Kirk, known as one of the first interracial kisses on TV. Nichols said in the video “it was just a kissing scene.”
“I said, well, it’s just two people like my grandmother and grandfather, and they said, ‘What do you mean your grandmother and grandfather,’ and I said, well, grandpa was white and grandma was Black,” Nichols said, followed by some laughs.
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The official Star Trek Instagram page posted a tribute to Nichols after her death, which said, “We’re deeply saddened to report the passing of Nichelle Nichols — a trailblazer, an inspiration, and so much more. She will be deeply missed.”
Nichols established Women in Motion Inc. in 1975, a company that created educational materials using music as a teaching tool, which was then expanded for astronaut recruitment after Nichols won a grant from NASA, her biography said. This contributed to thousands of women and minorities applying to the space program, like Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Guy Bluford, the first Black American in space.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson remembered Nichols in a statement Saturday and said she was a “trailblazing actress, advocate and dear friend to NASA.”
“At a time when Black women were seldom seen on screen, Nichelle’s portrayal as Nyota Uhura on Star Trek held a mirror up to America that strengthened civil rights,” Nelson said. “Nichelle’s advocacy transcended television and transformed NASA. 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.”
In 1984, Nichols was presented with NASA’s Public Service Award for her work helping to integrate the space program. She was also given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992, becoming the first Black actress to have her handprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Nichols wrote on her website ahead of her farewell tour last year she felt her life had “come back, full circle, to where the dreams of a young woman began” after motivating a new generation of astronauts just as others had once motivated her.
“You’ve heard the timeless adage: ‘Life comes full circle,’ and ‘what goes around comes around.’ I believe that, rather than moving in a circle and returning to the same starting point again and again, we travel the course of an infinite spiral,” Nichols wrote. “When we return to a starting point we are at a different level, hopefully a higher one; a spiritual peak from which to view our lives. And, thanks to you, what a life I’ve lived. Before I made the leap to working with the great Duke Ellington, before I became a professional dancer and singer, I had to discover myself. As I learned to believe in my talent, my voice, myself, I learned that I could make others believe as well.”