RIP Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Nyota Uhura)

by Curtis Lanclos

Today is 35 years to the day that the 1987 Atlanta Fantasy Fair (one of the early competitors of the huge sci-fi fantasy convention now known as DragonCon) began. I attended this show, and I had the privilege of meeting three celebrities of note (in my estimation, anyway):

  • Dawn of the Dead Makeup Artist Tom Savini
  • English B-Movie Actress Caroline Munro (of Starcrash and The Spy Who Loved Me)
  • Aliens actress Jeanette Goldstein

All of these legends of cinema were very kind and graciously answered whatever questions I had for them. However, there was one other celebrity present at the AFF who was equally as nice and engaging with me, even though she carried a little more “star power” (pun intended) than the other three (since she was a part of the monstrous franchise known as Star Trek).

Atlanta Fantasy Fair 1987 Flyer – Featuring Nichelle Nichols!

I am speaking of course of Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura), who sadly just passed away yesterday (Saturday, July 30, 2022) at the age of 89. I believe my friend Matt and I “met” Ms. Nichols on the second day of the convention; August 1, 1987. I stood in line with many other Trekkies (or Trekkers; whichever you prefer) to get to her table, which was near the entrance of the Georgia World Congress Center, as I recall. I remember her beautiful smile and demeanor as she signed the head shot I gave her, which was a publicity still from one of the Star Trek movies (I think it was from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock).

I also seem to call to mind that I made a joke comment that only an avid Trekkie would understand; and she responded with not only a hearty laugh, but also with a reply which revealed to me that she understood the joke.

A few years later, my maternal cousin Charles Gilbert also “met” Ms. Nichols in 1994 as she was doing a book signing, promoting her then new book Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. Knowing what a huge Trek fan I was (and still am), he bought a copy of the book for me and had her sign it.

I would also see Ms. Nichols one more time in my lifetime, and that was from a distance in 2015 when she was in the DragonCon parade.

The fact that Ms. Nichols passed away almost exactly 35 years to the day from the one time I actually had the opportunity to interact with her fosters a bit of a strange feeling in me. After all, this was was one of the first Black women to be a prominent TV character; and from that standpoint I felt I had met Hollywood royalty.

Famously, Lt. Uhura almost didn’t become the legend of a character in the annals of history she has ultimately become. In fact, Nichols considered quitting Star Trek after the first season. However, a discussion with a prominent fan of the show convinced her otherwise.

Nichols was given the chance to take a role on Broadway near the close of the first season of Star Trek. She chose to accept the part because she enjoyed performing on stage more than in a television studio. She sent her resignation letter and informed Gene Roddenberry that she would be leaving his show. Roddenberry tried unsuccessfully to persuade Nichols to stay, so he advised her to take the weekend off and think about it. If she still felt as strongly about it afterwards, Roddenberry would accept her resignation.

Nichols learned that a fan was sincerely interested in seeing her while she was at an NAACP banquet that particular weekend. This fan was none other than the great Martin Luther King Jr.! King personally urged her to stay on the show, telling her that she “could not give up” because the role she was playing served as an important role model for Black children and women across the nation as well as for other children who would see Black people portrayed as equals. King even made a positive comparison between her work on the series and the marches of the ongoing civil rights movement. Nichols was rendered speechless by King’s remark, which made her appreciate the significance of her contribution to the civil rights fight.

The next day, she returned to Roddenberry’s office to inform him that she would be staying. Roddenberry started crying when she revealed what King had said to her. Roddenberry pulled out her resignation letter, which he had already torn up, when Nichols requested her role back. As a result, the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) would go on to be demonstrated time and time again in the Star Trek franchise.

So, as they say, the rest is history. I doubt any real fan of Star Trek who had the opportunity to meet Nichelle Nichols has anything negative to say about her. It was very apparent that she loved her character, the franchise, and most importantly…. the fans.

RIP Ms. Nichols. Thank you so much for being a shining example of kindness, as well as IDIC.

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