Through her own words and vintage photos, you can find out about the groundbreaking star’s life both before and after the Enterprise took flight.
Actress Nichelle Nichols: In ‘Star Trek’, ‘Freedom’ is her name (1967)
Fort Lauderdale News (Ft Lauderdale, Florida) April 14, 1967
They call her Uhura. “It means ‘Freedom,'” said Nichelle Nichols. “I love the name.” Uhura is the Swahili communications officer aboard the United Space Ship Enterprise on “Star Trek.”
The name, Uhura, is unusual. So is the name Nichelle. “I won’t tell you my real name [Editor’s note: She was born Grace Dell Nichols], but at 14, I went to my mother and said I wanted to be a star, but not with this name,” Nichelle said.
“Mother said if I felt that way I should change it. I said, no, I wanted the name honestly. I asked her to rename me. She came up with the name Nichelle. I said, ‘Oh, no!’ but everyone liked it, and I’ve used it ever since.”
Nichelle, the seventh child in a family of 10 children, was a precious youngster. “Studies came easy, but I was always in hot water because I was always challenging the teacher,” said Nichelle.
‘”We had a lively discussion of ideas at home and we were encouraged to voice our opinions. I finally solved the conflict at school by keeping quiet, jotting down notes when I had a question, and taking the questions home for discussion.”
Nichelle enjoys “space travel.” She’s tried most of the earthly modes of transportation including skateboards, roller skates, ice skates, skiis, sports cars, private and commercial planes.
“I took flying lessons and during my third one I landed the plane myself without realizing it,” she said. “I shook for weeks. I’ve given up skiing and flying. I’m a coward about anything that might interfere with my career.
“I don’t have six months to spare for a broken leg or back.” She would make one exception. “If a flying saucer landed I’d hop aboard in spite of my career,” she said. “There’s nothing I’d like to do more. I would be the communications officer — if they’d also let me sing!”
Nichelle has communicated as a dancer, singer and actress since her early teens. She appeared at the Blue Angel and the Playboy Club in New York, starred in the title role of “Carmen Jones” in Chicago, and toured the United States, Canada and Europe as vocalist with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands.
On the West Coast, she appeared in “Roar of the Grease Paint, Smell of the Crowd,” “For My People” and James Baldwin’s play, “Blue for Mr. Charlie,” for which she received high critical acclaim. She has feature roles in two motion pictures, “Mister Buddwing” and “Three for the Wedding.”
As Nichelle works towards stardom, she seizes gratefully on words of professional encouragement which keep her going and propel her forward. “I’ve heard my words live for the first time,” writer Sam Taylor told her. “You, young lady, are an actress.”
British actress Jean Simmons helped Nichelle at a moment of crisis when she lost out to a name performer. Said Miss Simmons: “Do you know of anyone at your stage already competing with such name performers? Some day others will compete against you.”
‘Star Trek’s’ Uhura blends music and acting
Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, New Jersey) October 15, 1968
HOLLYWOOD — Nichelle Nichols has heard at least two deafening silences in her life. “When I was nine years old, I was asked to sing at a family reunion,” she said. “I had been singing quite innocent ditties till then. Mother and father had no idea that I’d pick a torch song, ‘When They Ask About You.’
“I had a deep, deep voice and I sang it with all the gestures. My relatives were absolutely shocked. I expected resounding applause. Instead, I was greeted with deafening silence.”
Nichelle reacted characteristically. “I sensed that I hadn’t pleased,” she said. “My immediate reaction then is to withdraw. Dad, who was sensitive to me, did a wise thing. He saw my bewilderment.
“Instead of applauding, he came over and said, ‘You had a surprise for your Daddy! Where did you learn that torch song? You are like Helen Morgan and Gertrude Lawrence. No, you’re my little Ethel Waters!'”
The incident helped inspire Nichelle to become a singer-actress, featured currently as Uhura, the communications officer, on NBC’s “Star Trek.”
“My father also told me that it’s not necessary for everyone to fall in love with what you’re doing,” said Nichelle. “You can still go ahead and do what you have in mind.”
Years later, as a professional singer, Nichelle was booked into the Blue Angel in New York. History repeated itself, with a twist. “I knew there’d be many notables in the audience,” she said. “I wanted a song that would say what’s inside me. I combined ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ with ‘On the Street Where You Live.’ I swung it. It was sacrilegious to New Yorkers. I didn’t know that.
“Afterwards, there was another deafening silence. Knowing that I didn’t have to please everybody, I just stood and smiled and suddenly, there was thunderous applause. Even the critics praised it as ‘an audacious rendition.'”
Nichelle finds singing and acting compatible. “I never thought of them as separate entities,” she said. “They are both me.”
There are two “Star Trek” episodes coming up in November that will show her in a particularly interesting light, “The Tholian Webb,” and “Plato’s Stepchildren.” “But,” says Nichelle, “I can’t live without music.”
Nichelle, who has a voice range of three octaves, will start singing again, without forsaking acting. Recently she was married to Duke Norris Mondy, a writer and lyricist, who also serves as her coach and musical arranger, together with arranger Peter Meyers.
“All my favorite love songs are sad, but they have a kind of recovery,” said Nichelle. “You never drown in them. I find a necessity to rise above sadness. That’s the way life is. Things happen, we must retreat a couple of rungs and then climb again. I’m a survivalist.” She explained.
“I am not an optimist, but I’m an idealist terribly tempered with realism. There’s so much more I have to do than I have done, There are only three things that matter: knowing who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going. It doesn’t matter if you get there — as long as you know where you’re going.”
Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols: She’s hoping dream becomes reality (1968)
By Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura in NBC-TV’s “Star Trek” – The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana) July 26, 1968 [syndicated]
Like most entertainers, TV and cinema personalities. it has been my pleasure to be actively involved with the struggle of my people attempting to extricate themselves from the bonds of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry that has held us so fast, for so long.
I’ve been more than happy to appear at schools, churches and community affairs in hope that what success I have attained could serve as an inspiration for some black youth who might otherwise give up. The energy and time I have invested in helping the mothers of Watts, VISTA, Head Start, Bootstrap and OIS has been meaningful to me.
Fighting for a race
I know I am not only fighting and working for my people as a race, I’m fighting for myself as an individual as well. As a black person, I am affected by the same unjust elements, simply on a different level.
One of the most enlightening experiences I’ve had was in a poverty area church . . . predominantly black. The minister had asked me to talk to the youth group. His concern was for their future, their ambitions, and discouraging from violence.
What can one say to a 17-year-old black boy who says, “Miss Nichols, before I die in Vietnam for a country that will not acknowledge me as a person, I’d rather die in the streets fighting for my freedom here. And if not my freedom, maybe the next generations to come.”
Perhaps this was the first time I had truly understood the meaning of the Black Movement, for even in spite of their despair I could feel a great sense of pride. Many of the girls and boys now wore their hair in the natural style. Yes, they were black AND proud of it. Poor AND not happy with it. American AND determined to be treated like it. Could I assure him of equality? Could I assure him of his rights?
As the first black woman in a TV series, I had made a small fissure in the wall surrounding a closed wall called “for whites only.” Would I set a precedent to help open the way to greater involvement in the industry? Would I be able to gain greater acceptance and understanding of my people as people?
At that moment, I realized how badly my people need help, and how badly my country needed help.
The best way to help my people and all people is to help the nation wake up. We as a people are facing an enemy known to man, ourselves. As long as we live from riot to riot and from assassination to assassination, this country is in trouble.
Must we wait until our civilization is covered with atomic ash or our cities in flames to find out where we went wrong?
Star Trek is based on science fact and projected 200 years into the future. If you watch the show, you have noticed that the crew is made up of many different nationalities and races. It is based on the premise that “200 years from now, mankind will be here, along the way someone didn’t push the button, and humanity survived the racial conflicts and political wars.” It is now within the power of this nation to make this dream a reality.
A bundle of energy
“A bundle of energy off camera, Nichelle takes turn around studio on a borrowed bike.
“Her bubbly personality has been written into script. When she complained about a recent repetitious line, her comments on the subject were included in show.”
‘Star Trek’ lives on through daily reruns (1973)
By Penny P. Anderson – The Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) May 16, 1973
NBC canceled “Star Trek” from the network line-up three years ago, but the good ship Enterprise and its unique space team continue to cruise the airwaves daily through reruns.
The futuristic series, in fact, still carries through syndication an impressive schedule into over 100 American cities and 56 foreign countries. It is currently the top-rated show in Germany.
And for the cast of the now-camp series — William Shattner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForrest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takai, Walter Koenig, and Majel Barrett — “Star Trek” is still a way of life.
Fan club revives
“You bet it is,” affirms Nichelle Nichols, the handsome black actress and nightclub entertainer who portrayed the Enterprise’s communications officer. “I’ve even had to start up my fan club again,” she reports, “because the incoming mail is so hot and heavy.”
As with her lunar cohorts, Nichelle has traveled extensively throughout the country appearing at various conventions and festivals centering around the deposed series. Reaction to the appearances have been impressive.
At a “Star Trek” convention held earlier this year in New York, three hundred people were expected and five thousand showed up. At the most recent conclave, held at Los Angeles’ International Hotel last month, several thousand “Trekkies” showed up.
More than 3,000 fan clubs for the show exist today, explains Majel Barrett, a former “Star Trek” co-star, and wife of the program’s producer Gene Roddenberry. Coordinating the various activities, mail and requests from those organizations has become a full-time job for the actress.
Collectors grab props
Those worldwide admirers have made status symbols of the show’s mementos. “Practically all of the wardrobe has disappeared — ripped off or taken home by studio personnel,” a Paramount Studio spokesman reports.
“The sets are gone now, too. I heard that in Europe it’s become a big status thing among film executives to see whose kids have the most ‘Star Trek’ costumes and artifacts.”
The “Trekkie” phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by NBC which originally sliced the show from the schedule. The network has, in fact, offered Roddenbury another chance at a prime-time go. around if he is willing to produce a new pilot episode for programming executives’ consideration.
So far, Roddenberry, currently filming next season’s “Cyborg” series, has declined the invitation. “Gene feels there were three years’ worth of episodes that prove what the series is all about,” Nichelle Nichols explains. “He thinks it would be too expensive — and unnecessary — to do a whole new pilot.”
The issue is reportedly still not dead, although NBC is already in production with an animated version of the space adventure — regardless of whether the live dramatic series returns to the network or not. A feature-length motion picture which would probably star the original cast is also being discussed, reports Ms. Nichols.
Nichelle Nichols cover story from Ebony (January 1967)
The actress on the set of Star Trek, the original series, on the cover of Ebony magazine
A new star in the TV heavens (Ebony magazine, 1967)
“Shapely Nichelle Nichols plays space ship crewman on color show, Star Trek”
On the Star Trek set with Leonard Nimoy
“Popular around studio, Nichelle hams it up with actor Nimoy during a break in the Star Trek filming. Herb Solow, chief of operations at Desilu Studios, looks upon the talented actress as a bonus, as ‘we had hoped to find (just) a shapely broad.'”
Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols in her later years (2017)
I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) July 31, 2022