Although her leading role changed television forever – expanding the realm of possibilities for black people, and black women in particular – Nichelle Nichols also helped black students dream bigger about their future, which I have experienced first hand.
Growing up, my uncle was a huge star trek fan, so I often watched Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura. But my fondest memory of Nichols came in 2016 when I was a student at the 70th Miss Bowie State University. That day, I was fighting the urge to go back to my dorm — which is named after Bowie State alumnus Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space had she not been killed in the devastating Challenger explosion in 1986. At the end of class, I received a text from my advisor that said, “Come to the communications building. There’s someone you should meet and talk to.
When you’re a campus queen, you get text messages like that quite often. School officials invite you to meet a range of people, from university donors to former Kings and Queens Campuses. But this time it was different. Instinctively, I replied to the text: “Who? The answer was 1,000 times better than a nap: Nichelle Nichols.
Nichols was a national treasure. Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois in 1932, the actress, singer and dancer was best known for her breakthrough role as communications officer on the USS Enterprise in star trek. On Sunday, Nichols died of natural causes, according to a statement released by her son, Kyle Johnson. She was 89 years old.
Nichols lived several lives before joining the cast of star trek in 1966. During her teenage years, she sang in nightclubs in Chicago, and later the famous composer and bandleader Duke Ellington invited her to go on tour. For many it would be the fulfillment of a lifetime, but it was just getting started. Nichols, who was one of the first black women to star in TV, even helped name her iconic. star trek character. When she auditioned for the role, she was reading Uhuru, a historical novel about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya written by Robert Ruark. Show creator Gene Roddenberry saw the book, read it, and decided to name the character Nichols after the novel’s title.
Nichols’ ability to break down barriers didn’t end with Lt. Uhura. By the time I met Nichols in 2016, she had been advocating for a more inclusive space program for decades. She challenged NASA to diversify its astronaut classes and worked with the agency to help inspire more women and people of color to join its ranks.
Through his advocacy and others in the field, Bowie State became the first university to receive satellite collaboration with NASA, which allowed students to work remotely with a NASA team in Florida on missions of space center. BSU also became the first and only historically black university to establish a satellite operations and control center on its campus. When I met her, Nichols was visiting campus to tour facilities and advocate for black students to have the opportunity to pursue careers in space.
As I was escorted to meet her, Nichols smiled brightly as she sat in her wheelchair outside the communications building. I couldn’t help but be moved at the sight. Meeting my soro, who was an honorary member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and who I grew up watching on TV, felt surreal. Even at age 83, and as health issues including dementia began to plague her, Nichols continued her mission to inspire students. Although our conversation was brief – and consisted mostly of me talking about what she meant to me – Nichols showed me that we all have a responsibility to help create a future that goes beyond from what we can currently imagine.
When I learned that Nichols had passed away on Sunday, I was overwhelmed with emotion – losing an icon is always difficult, regardless of age. But I’ve taken comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who recognizes Nichols’ impact and accomplishments, as many have taken to Twitter to share the impact his legacy has left on their lives.
Nichols was a trailblazer and her impact will live on far beyond her time on this earth. May his legacy continue to “live long and prosper”.