Part I of 2
Saturday’s ‘Festival of Flight’ event at Navy Pier’s Lakeview Terrace capped off a three-day celebration in Chicago to honor women of color in aviation.
Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut to travel in space, hosted the three-day celebration, beginning Thursday with an event for Chicago area high school girls at the Illinois Air National Guard Hangar near Midway Airport.
On hand at Navy Pier on Saturday were astronauts, pilots, flight surgeons and flight historians. The event’s honorary chair was Nichelle Nichols, original cast member of Star Trek who played Lt. Uhura. Jemison, a fan of the original 1960s Star Trek television show, has said in the past that Nichols was the real first black woman in space.
Jemison has said that she was inspired by Nichols to become the first African American female astronaut. Nichols’ legion of fans include actress Whoopi Goldberg, who went on to star in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Star Trek creator, the late Gene Roddenberry, was a man ahead of his time, hiring many minority actors, including Nichols, for the science fiction series.
At the time, Nichols was the only major black female cast member of a dramatic series. Her role as Uhura in the 1960s was the first time an African American actress was portrayed in a non-stereotypical role such as maids or housekeepers.
The role also brought African and African-American culture to the small screen.
Her character’s name, “Uhura” comes from the Swahili word which means freedom. Uhura also spoke Swahili in some episodes. Nichols writes in her book “Beyond Uhura” that the name was inspired by the fact that she had with her a copy of the book “Black Uhuru” on the day she read for the part. Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, and was also an accomplished singer, model and dancer in her career.
Nichols has worked in television, film, and stage, including performances in Carmen Jones, Blues for Mr. Charlie and Porgy and Bess. At the end of Star Trek’s first season Nichols thought of leaving, but a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed her mind. Dr. King told her she should not give up, and that she was an important role model for young black women.
Jemison, a South Side native, appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jemison, who turns 50 on Oct. 17, made history with her first mission aboard the Shuttle Endeavor on Sept. 12, 1992. Jemison was a Science Mission Specialist on the flight. In 1994, Jemison established The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (DJF), named after her mother.
In an interview with the Austin Weekly News, Nichelle Nichols talked about women of color in flight and her friendship with Jemison.
AWN: Why are you here today celebrating women of color in flight?
Nichols: “Well, I’ve been a friend of Mae Jemison, who’s responsible for this magnificent event. The foundation is in honor of her mother Dorothy, who was a school teacher, and it is to expose black children, especially young women, to the fact that women of color all over the world have been involved in aviation and aerospace for many years. I think some of the kids only know of Bessie Coleman (the first black woman to become an airplane pilot) and do not realize that her legacy has gone on. There are many women of color who are aviators, who fly Blackhawks, and the military has found their grace in many areas of aviation, both flying here in near space and outer space. They are in aviation support as flight engineers, electrical engineers, and women who do all forms of careers that are available to them -all the possibilities that are available to young people that they aren’t aware of. We want to enlighten them and show them what the possibilities in life are, whether or not they go into outer space. They don’t need to become an astronaut to become involved. They can have great careers, exciting careers that have to do with aerospace and beyond.
“As I told a group of 100 young kids that Dr. Jemison had brought in from all over the Chicago area ‘just realize your dreams; first it’s a dream and then it’s a reality,” Nichols added. “It is what you put into it. From there, the possibilities are enormous.”
AWN: How does it feel to be a role model?
Nichols: “I was there in fantasy. Whoopi Goldberg was a 9-year-old child when I first came on, and ran through the house saying ‘hurry, hurry, come quick – there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid.’ She said, ‘I knew when I saw you that I could become anything I wanted to.’ Mae Jemison was 9-years-old when she saw me. She said, ‘I always knew I wanted to fly. I always knew I wanted to go out to the stars. I grew up watching the stars and wondering how to get there.’ In 1976, I recruited, under contract to NASA, the first women of minority astronauts for the space shuttle program. Mae was in medical school, and when she read of the success of my recruitment, which brought in six women, three black men, Asian and indigenous American Indians, she said, ‘now I know I’m going.’ When you see imagines on TV that you can look at and see yourself, you say ‘yes I can do that.’ Imagines are dreams. They just give you proof that whatever you were dreaming is not an impossibility -it’s very much a possibility.”
AWN: Do people still come to you and call you Lt. Uhura?
Nichols: “Of course they do. Uhura is Swahili for freedom. When Gene Roddenberry cast me I was reading this treaty on Africa called Uhuru. It was a best seller. Right then he said, ‘I want to use this Swahili. I now know that you’re not from any other country but the United States of Africa. This is what you will be. How can I use this word freedom?’ And I said, ‘well, freeman is certainly a name that came from freedom; a free man and woman.’ Gene said, ‘I love Uhuru,’ and I said, ‘why don’t we feminize that, soften it and call it Uhura.’ He established something that caught the imagination of millions of people of all ages. People are still raising their children as they were raised on Star Trek. And what it was is to say again, what you dream you can do – if you can dream it you can do it.”
For more information about women of color in flight, contact www.womenofcolorinflight.org. or www.jemisonfoundation.org.