20 legendary Black science fiction actors who rocked the genre

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Nichelle Nichols

No list like this one would be complete without mentioning Nichelle Nichols. For many of the actors on this list, their careers would be completely different or even nonexistent if it weren’t for Nichols’ pioneering work on Star Trek. If we didn’t have Uhura sitting at the comms on the first deck of the starship Enterprise, then all of science fiction television and film could have taken a very disparate turn, compared to what we have today.

Nichols didn’t just magically appear in that set. She had already set out on a serious music career first, singing with the likes of Duke Ellington before she turned to acting. By 1967, she was on the cover of Ebony, had starred in various plays to great acclaim, and guest starred in an early series produced by Gene Roddenberry.

That connection with Roddenberry likely went a long way to landing her that role on the Star Trek series. Things weren’t all cheery for Nichols, though. She still had her eye on Broadway, and a recurring gig on a show based in California wasn’t helping.

Nichols even went so far as to tell Roddenberry that she was quitting. Before she could make it official, though, a fan convinced her to stay. This wasn’t any run-of-the-mill Trekkie. It was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, one of the most pivotal leaders of the Civil Rights Movement was a big fan. He told her that Star Trek was the only show that he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, would allow their young children to watch past their bedtime.

Dr. King personally convinced her that she was an important role model for women and Black children specifically. When Dr. King says that to you, it’s near impossible to disappoint him. Nichols stayed. And she really had a major influence. NASA astronaut Mae Jemison (the first Black woman in space) has cited Lt. Uhura as her inspiration for becoming a real-life spacefarer.

Nichols eventually became a recruiter for NASA, with an eye towards encouraging women and people of color to join the agency. Beyond Dr. Jemison, Nichols also helped enlist Dr. Sally Ride (the first American woman in space), Colonel Guion Bluford (the first African-American astronaut), and former NASA administrator Charles Bolden. If Nichols work here is not legendary, then nothing else is.

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