Nichelle Nichols: A ‘Star Trek’ pioneer who broke through prejudice to ascend

When a big figure in the entertainment industry dies, I do a targeted search diversity‘s archive to find the person’s first appearance on our pages. A person’s timing and context diversity Debut is often very revealing about the arc of her career.

I did my usual search after the sad news broke on July 31st that actor-singer Nichelle Nichols, legendary Lt. Uhura of the original “Star Trek” series and a true television pioneer, had died at the age of 89. What I found made me cringe. This trip down memory lane brought me face to confront the ugly history of racism and segregation in the entertainment business, as documented in our coverage.

It was shocking to see how utterly commonplace it was for the industry to discriminate against black artists in the 1960s and 1970s when Nichols began her career as a singer and actress.

The first mention of Nichols in diversity appeared in a small ad in the June 20, 1960 issue for the Ye Little Club, a nightclub on North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills (roughly where Wally’s stands today). The blurb advertised a number of up-and-coming artists, including “sepia sensation Nichelle Nichols.”

The first reference to Nichols in a diversity story wasn’t better. That came nine days later in a positive review of her show at the Ye Little Club. Our reviewer called her a “sepia thrush” and “a head turner that further livens up her twist by emphasizing butt movements.”

Most by the late 1960s diversity References to Nichols mention her race, always as a qualification for her work: she was a “negro singer” when she was signed to Epic. She was a “sepia singer” in an article about her joining the cast of the James Garner thriller Mr. Bud.”

In the early 1970s, as Star Trek brought her a bigger name and cultural norms began to change, diversity Nichols is no longer routinely referred to by race. But these early mentions, while not overtly pejorative of the era, stand out as such a statement of how institutional Hollywood treated black industrialists with a racial starlet.

In fact, Lt. Nichols’ Uhura is the character who most embodies the progressive, inclusive, and hopeful spirit that has carried Star Trek for nearly 60 years. Lt. Uhura was a black woman who more than rivaled William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock and all the other Starfleet officers on the Enterprise’s bridge.

Thankfully, in Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, there were no qualifiers for Lt. uhura And just as fortunately, Nichols had the undeniable talent and determination to make this character an enduring symbol of progress. Nichelle Nichols: A ‘Star Trek’ pioneer who broke through prejudice to ascend

Charles Jones

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