Grace Nichols was born to Sam and Lishia Nichols on 28 December 1933. Lishia was half Cherokee and half African-American; Sam was largely of European-American ancestry (his father had been white and had married a former slave of mixed blood, though his father disowned him for it). Grace was named after Sam's great-aunt Graciela from Seville. Sam, Lishia, and their several children lived in Chicago, Illinois for most of Grace's childhood. Sam Nichols was a chemist with a degree from Howard University and his family was well provided for.
Grace wanted to be a singer and dancer from early childhood, and was seven when she started ballet lessons. She says in her autobiography, "Ballet came so naturally to me that by the time I was nine I was en pointe," which is quite early. (She was also a bit of a tomboy, tagging along after her older brothers whether they liked it or not. Her mother did not approve of such lack of girlishness.) At fourteen, she went to audition for a more advanced school, and the Russian teacher who saw her and her father said, "I thought you said the appointment was for your daughter? We don't take Black students. Black people cannot dance the ballet." Her father, "in his voice a mix of humiliation and fury bordering on violence," informed the teacher that this was indeed his daughter, and the teacher relented enough to watch Grace dance. Though "the audition continued a little longer than necessary, as the ballet master looked for something wrong in my form," Grace was immediately accepted to the school.
However, her curiosity led her to also take Afro-Cuban dance lessons also, and it was through this dance teacher that she got a job performing at a hotel with other students in the class. Through her performances, she met such show business legends as Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington. She also signed up with an agent who persuaded her to take the stage name "Lynn Mayfield." Grace hated this name, though, and with her mother's help came up with "Nichelle Nichols" so she could keep her family name and have "NN" for initials (and because her mother and wanted to name her Michelle originally.)
At seventeen, she met Foster Johnson, a dancer almost twice her age, and immediately fell in love. Nichelle says she entered the relationship with this older man without any naivete, and they married, despite her parents' dismay, in 1951 just after Nichelle turned eighteen. She was already two months pregnant, but did not stop performing, especially when Duke Ellington offered her the title female role in a dance to his piece "Pretty and the Wolf." Foster and Bobby Johnson performed with her, but Foster and Duke did not get along and their engagement was not extended. Nichelle went back to her parents' home while Foster went off to perform in Canada, but this was essentially the end for them. Foster sent money sometimes, but was not there when his son Kyle was born on August 14, 1951, and Nichelle and Foster would never be a couple again even though they did not formally divorce for several years.
For a brief time Nichelle worked in an office, but when she was offered a chance to go to business school at her employer's expense, she realized that she really wanted to return to show business. She performed in Chicago-area clubs as a singer, and gradually started to get out-of-town work. Her career went well, though she would sometimes encounter racist hotel owners and employers who assumed performers were easy (including the harrowing story told in Beyond Uhura about her near-rape in Canada). Kyle stayed with her parents in Chicago when Nichelle was out of town, but the Chicago winters were hurting Sam Nichols' health; "to pay back my parents for everything they had done for me and Kyle," she found them all a place in Los Angeles, which also gave her a chance to move her career in the direction of movies and television.
Her first step in that direction was a small part in Samuel Goldwyn's movie production of Porgy and Bess, where she met Sammy Davis, Jr., Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, and even a fellow dancer -- Maya Angelou. She also continued performing in clubs, and Rex Reed said in his review of a show, "She sometimes reminds you of Lena or Eartha, until you realize she is uniquely Nichelle." She also met longtime boyfriend Frank Silvera, a fellow actor who appeared on Broadway, in movies, and on TV. She also spent time in New York City to appear in productions there (and take voice lessons from the same teacher as then-unknown Barbra Streisand).
Back in Los Angeles, Nichelle and Frank put together the Theatre of Being, producing plays which Frank directed and one or both of them performed. This situation continued for a while, as Nichelle's family changed -- her father died in 1963, her son got her to arrange for him to meet his father for the first time, and eventually Kyle also surprised her with his appearance in a production of A Raisin In The Sun. Kyle continued acting, and in fact he and his mother sometimes went for parts in the same production (without saying they were related).
Nichelle's first job in TV was an episode of The Lieutenant in 1963, a show which happened to be written by Gene Roddenberry. The two became friends, and as Gene's marriage and Nichelle's relationship with Frank fell apart, Gene and Nichelle fell in love. However, Gene had also met and become involved with Majel Barrett, who interestingly enough had met Nichelle at an audition for The Singing Nun. Eventually he reached a point where, as Nichelle tells it, he brought the two of them together, saying "I couldn't go on behind either one of your backs. I love you both too much." Nichelle was the one who broke off her romance with Gene, who would later marry Majel, but Gene remained friends with Nichelle -- enough so to go to quite a bit of trouble to cast her in his series of three years later, Star Trek.
Nichelle was called back from time in Paris to audition for Star Trek, though no particular character for her to play had been written yet and she was given Spock's lines to read. (Associate Producer Bob Justman apparently responded to her reading with "I think we ought to have Penny call down to personnel and see if Leonard Nimoy has signed his contract yet.") Gene and Nichelle created the character together, but network executives objected to having a black female character. Eventually she was hired as a day player rather than a contracted actor -- Gene's strategem for getting around the network, since he planned to use her just as often as he would have if she were under contract. Nichelle would actually end up earning more under this set-up than she would have, but she found it rather humiliating at first, even though none of her fellow cast members knew she wasn't hired on the same basis they were. Nonetheless, studio executives still did their best to pare down her role in the show, with such rationales as "the network affiliates in the Deep South might not carry the show." Her fan mail sat in the mailroom instead of being delivered to her (as it was to her co-stars), and studio representatives made racist remarks to her face. It was too much and Nichelle decided after the first season to leave the show.
However, the weekend after telling Gene of her decision, Nichelle encountered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at an NAACP fund-raiser; he told her that not only was he a fan, but that her role was extremely important because it showed "men and woman of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals...you have the first nonstereotypical role on television, male or female" for a black actor. This persuaded Nichelle to stay on the show with the friends she had made in the cast. Nichelle's autobiography tells a lot of stories of the friendly practical jokes the cast members played on one another (though she does also chronicle a few interpersonal problems that developed, particularly with William Shatner).
After Star Trek's three seasons, Nichelle went on looking for other parts, but as Trek fandom built, she also appeared at conventions, starting with the very first one, held in 1970. At Leonard Nimoy's insistence, in 1973 she and the other cast members were hired to do voices for the Star Trek cartoon (which had originally planned to use the real voices of only Shatner and Nimoy from the original cast). She also joined the charitable organization Kwanza, a group of black female performers who raise money to help the disadvantaged. But other than a few roles (such as the madam Dorinda in Truck Turner with Isaac Hayes) she found herself typecast and gradually stopped performing in the late 1970s. Instead she formed a company called "Women In Motion, Inc." which undertook government contract for projects in education and promoting the space program, particularly recruiting for NASA among women and minorities.
One contract had Nichelle writing, directing, and producing a space-oriented musical which would be staged at Oregon State University. Nichelle credits this project with leading her back into music, and she would eventually release albums with some of the music from this musical, Ancestry. However, Women In Motion became problematic because the company's clients usually insisted Nichelle appear personally at their events; she was away from home so much that it was difficult to work with others on projects. The company eventually closed down.
Nichelle wasn't unemployed, though; by this time the first Star Trek movie was in production. The six-movie series with the original cast kept Nichelle fairly busy throughout the 1980s, but in 1986 she also released the album Uhura Sings (as Uhura had in a few original series episodes, though oddly enough, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier where Uhura is shown singing, the producers chose to substitute another singer's voice for Nichelle's own). In 1991, she put together and starred in a "two-act musical theater piece" tracing black women in entertainment from the 1920s onward -- she sang as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Mahalia Jackson, and Leontyne Price.
In the 1990s, in addition to publishing her autobiography, Beyond Uhura in 1994, Nichelle co-wrote the science fiction novel Saturn's Child with Margaret Bonana, which spawned the sequel Saturna's Quest with Jim Meecham, and released the CD "Out of this World" in 1995. She also did voices for the animated series "Spider-Man" and "Gargoyles," appeared in various documentaries on Trek, space, and African-Americans in TV, and had a part in the movie "Snow Dogs."
She had a mild stroke in June 2015, and was diagnosed with dementia in early 2018. Conflict arose over who was in charge of her and her finances: her manager since 2010, Gilbert Bell; her only son, Kyle Johnson, or her concerned friend Angelique Fawcette. Bell had power of attorney since Nichelle's hospitalization for pancreatitis in 2013, until Johnson legally petitioned for conservatorship of his mother in May 2018 (although Fawcette contested this in August of that year). Johnson became his mother's primary caretaker, and the three-sided publicity, legal and financial battles over what was best for her continued until Nichelle died on July 31, 2022 at the age of 89.
Nichols, Nichelle. Beyond Uhura. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994.