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Nichelle Nichols
Nichelle Nichols Nichelle Nichols


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As a starring member of the original Star Trek television series, Nichelle Nichols trod a pioneering path in network broadcasting Her character, Lieutenant Commander Uhura, provided an unprecedented inspiration for a generation of young black viewers-- an educated, dignified space traveler in a future world devoid of bigotry and sexism Before Lieutenant Uhura took to the bridge on the starship Enterprise in the late 1960s, black women had assumed mostly subordinate--and unimportant--roles on television shows Nichols changed that, serving as a role model not only for would-be black actresses but also as a symbol for young women who dreamed of becoming astronauts and scientistsThe Uhura role in television and movies is the crowning achievement of Nichols's long and productive career as an entertainer and advocate of space travel The glamorous performer began working as a dancer in her native Chicago just after World War II, broke into television after years of traveling as a successful nightclub singer, and used her most visible role as a futuristic space explorer to promote the reality of women and minorities in the real life US space program As testament to Nichols's success in her many roles, comedian Whoopi Goldberg once commented that when she was a young "kid from the projects," she saw in Nichols's Lieutenant Uhura "the only vision of Black people in the future," and a Jet magazine correspondent summed up Nichols's many contributions by calling her "the embodiment of Black beauty and intelligence"Born Grace Nichols in the small Chicago suburb of Robbins, Illinois, Nichelle Nichols entered a fiercely independent and determined family.

Her paternal grandfather was a white Southerner who defied the conventions of his time and alienated his wealthy parents by marrying a black woman It was this grandfather who settled in Robbins, an integrated community, in the early part of the century Nichols's father was a businessman who served as mayor of Robbins during the Prohibition era Her mother had been a scholar who hoped to attend law school Because both of her parents had children from previous marriages, Nichelle was born into a large, close-knit familyIn her autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, Nichols described herself as a precocious youngster who liked to sing Broadway show tunes and entertain her siblings At an early age she began dancing lessons and was captivated by classical ballet She was so talented that as a young teen she earned an audition with the Chicago Ballet Academy When she arrived at the audition with her father, she was informed by the instructor that blacks could not possibly hope to undertake a formal study of ballet--they just were not suited for it Furious, her father insisted that she be allowed to audition.

Equally furious at the humiliation, Nichols danced her very best and won the right to attend the academy "It never occurred to either of my parents to feel inferior to anyone for any reason," Nichols recalled in her book "My father taught us, `You are not better than anyone else But there is no one better than you' Both my parents--and in my father's case his parents as well--had defied the odds and bucked the system They saw no reason why we could not become whatever we wanted"Nichols wanted to be a dancer From the ages of 12 to 14 she studied classical ballet at the Chicago Ballet Academy and also pursued Afro-Cuban dancing under the tutelage of Carmencita Romero The latter experience helped her to land her first professional engagement, at the tender age of 14, with a song and dance revue staged at the prestigious Sherman House Hotel "Destiny had found me, and I embraced it," the actress wrote in her memoir.

During her performance time at the Sherman House, Nichols met many of the prominent nightclub artists of the day, including the immortal Duke Ellington Ellington was so impressed with her dancing that he later invited her to join his touring company, and she did so as a dancer with her first husband, Foster JohnsonThe birth of her only child, Kyle, in 1951 provided the only lull in Nichols's performing career Separated from the child's father, she sought work in a downtown Chicago office in order to support her son The work was not rewarding, however, and she longed to go back to the stage She returned to Chicago nightclubs as a singer- dancer in the revue "Calypso Carnival," staged by Jimmy Payne Then, in the mid-1950s, she went on tour as a solo act, singing and dancing in supper clubs all over America and Canada She was paid so well for these engagements that she was eventually able to move her entire family to Los Angeles The traveling lifestyle finally began to take its toll, however, and Nichols decided to try to find work in Hollywood As she noted in her autobiography, "My decision to focus my sights on film or television wasn't an easy one.

I knew that months, perhaps even years, of sacrifice and discipline lay ahead, but something inside me told me I could make it work"After serving as an opening act for comedian Redd Foxx, Nichols earned a part as a principal dancer in the film version of Porgy and Bess That experience led to a lead in the Broadway play Kicks and Company, which ran only for a few weeks, and subsequent nightclub work in New York City By 1963 she was back in Los Angeles, looking for work in television On her very first television assignment, a guest role on the series The Lieutenant, she met an up-and-coming writer-producer named Gene RoddenberryWhile working together on The Lieutenant in 1963, Roddenberry and Nichols began a romantic and business relationship that would develop into a long-lasting, close friendship Roddenberry's brainchild, Star Trek, was meant to be an action-adventure series that would also make points about racial and political tolerance Nichols's work on The Lieutenant convinced Roddenberry to add a role for her on Star Trek She would play a high-ranking officer and communications specialist who would demonstrate the untapped potential of women in the field of space exploration In Beyond Uhura, Nichols recalled: "It was only after I'd been brought on board, and Gene and I conceived and created her, that Uhura was born.

Many times through the years I've referred to Uhura as my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of the twenty-third century Gene and I agreed that she would be a citizen of the United States of America And her name, Uhura, is derived from Uhuru, which is Swahili for `freedom'"Star Trek had its premier in 1966 Nichols starred along with the actors who are now considered the "classic cast"--William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Jimmy Doohan, and Walter Koenig Not only was Nichols the most important woman character on the show, she was also one of the most important black woman characters ever on network television Fan mail poured in from across the country, but the actress was still dissatisfied with her treatment by the television studio and by the way in which her character's action was minimized She was determined to leave the show after its first season until a chance meeting with civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr caused her to change her mind.

In her autobiography, Nichols noted that King was aghast when she said she might leave Star Trek King told her that he understood her grievances, but that she had "created a character of dignity and grace and beauty and intelligence" Furthermore, he felt she was not a role model for African Americans only, but "more important for people who don't look like us For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people--as we should be There will always be role models for Black children; you are a role model for everyone"Nichols stayed on Star Trek until it was cancelled in 1969 Among other challenges, her work on the show included the first televised interracial kiss--a moment the actress recalls with a great deal of amusement After Star Trek's cancellation, Nichols experienced the inevitable letdown of a performer without a venue, but then a most extraordinary phenomenon occurred that has kept her busy--and provided her with many rewarding moments--ever sinceIn the wake of Star Trek Nichols began to serve as a catalyst for real women and minorities who wanted to be astronauts In 1975 she established Women in Motion, Inc.

, a company that produced educational materials using music as a teaching tool From its modest origins, Women in Motion expanded to become an astronaut recruitment project after Nichols won a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Within four months in 1977, her company had helped to find almost 1,700 female applicants and 1,000 minority applicants to NASA's space program Among these were Sally Ride, the first woman to go into space, as well as Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, and Ellison Onizuka--all three of whom were killed in the US space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986 In October of 1984 Nichols was presented with NASA's Public Service Award for her many efforts toward an integrated US space programThe continued popularity of Star Trek also helped to pave the way for a series of Star Trek movies with the "classic cast," including Nichols.

Between 1979 and 1991 Nichols appeared in six Star Trek feature films always enjoying the opportunity to re-unite with her associates from the original television show She has also returned to the live stage in a one-woman show entitled Reflections, a musical tribute to such legendary black performers as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Katherine Dunham, and others In 1992 she served as host of the USA Network series Inside SpaceWhile some of the "classic cast" Star Trek performers resent the popularity of the series and their characters, Nichelle Nichols has continued to be gracious to fans and loyal to the spirit of Uhura Nichols found herself being invited to Star Trek conventions and being treated like royalty when she came Even though the millions of "Trekkies," or Star Trek fans, might identify Nichols simply as the character she played on television, she stated in her autobiography that she was "proud of who [Uhura] was (or will be) and what she represented, not only in her time but in ours" She also commented, "I firmly believe in the power of vision, and Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek raised the prospect that space offered humankind the opportunity to start anew The show's ethical premises certainly formed a new foundation upon which the classical elements of television drama could be redesigned But to Gene, it all meant so much more He believed, as do I and many others, that this was not simply one possible version of the future, but the only viable one".

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