Nichelle Nichols Birthday

Hello again, it’s Jeff here to talk about Nichelle Nichols, who was born on December 28, 1932.  I, like most people, knew Nichelle from her role as Uhura in Star Trek and didn’t think much beyond that.  When Barbara asked me to write a post about Gene Roddenberry I found out through my research that after the network refused to give Nichelle a contract he kept her on at a week to week basis.  In trying to confirm this I ended up doing further research on Nichelle and became fascinated by her life story.  

Nichelle, who’s birth name is Grace Dell Nichols, was born in Robbins Illinois, originally a small town south of Chicago, but now part of the greater Chicago metro area.  The area was first proposed as a suburb of Chicago in the early 1890s and lots were sold to whites at exorbitant prices with the expectation that Chicago would grow that way after the World’s Columbian Exposition, but the city did not grow as anticipated and most of the speculators lost their investments.  In the early 1900s Henry Robbins acquired the land and began marketing it to African Americans.  The town grew and had a population of 300 by 1917 when it was officially incorporated, one of the first towns to be incorporated by African Americans and one of the few towns.  The town supported one of the few airports that allowed African American pilots.  This airport, which was destroyed by a tornado in 1933, was the model for the Tuskegee Airmen.  The town was also a hotspot for African Americans from Chicago supporting green spaces for picnics and an active nightclub scene. By 2010 the population was 5,337 with 96% of the inhabitants African American and it is one of the poorer Chicago suburbs.  This being said, for so small a town, it has produced a number of notable celebrities, including Nichelle, Dwyane Wade, Joe Montgomery, James Loving and Shaun Wiggins.

Nichelle’s was a gifted dancer who started ballet when she was 7.  When she was 14 she auditioned for the Chicago Ballet Academy.  At first the instructor refused to let her audition because “Black people can’t dance ballet.”  After her father insisted that she would be able to audition, she did and was admitted to the dance school.  During this time she also took Afro-Cuban dance lessons and started getting jobs in hotels.  She was discovered by Duke Ellington and started touring with him.  By the end of the tour she was the lead singer and her career kept growing from there.  In the mid 50’s she had earned enough money to move her extended family to Los Angeles where she could focus on her career in television, which lead to Star Trek role and her current fame.

Her role in Star Trek wasn’t what I found so interesting though.  Instead it was her commitment to being a role model that caught my eye.  After the first year of Star Trek she was ready to quit.  The network was treating her as a second class citizen and constantly downgrading her role.  The same week that she told Gene of her intentions she also attended a NAACP fund raiser.  There she met Dr. Martin Luther King who told her:

You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close. I’m sure you have taken a lot of grief, but you changed the face of television forever. You have created a character of dignity and grace and beauty and intelligence. Don’t you see that you’re not just a role model for little black children? You’re more important for people who don’t look like us. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people–as we should be…Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color.

This changed her mind about quitting and she stayed on the show until it was cancelled, but never stopped being an inspiration to the black community.  In the 70’s she gave a speech criticizing NASA for not selecting women and people of color to the astronaut programs.  NASA challenged her to help with the recruitment effort.  In response she created Women in Motion, a company dedicated to attracting minority candidates to the space program.  While it is hard to say the direct impact she had, the number of applicants jumped from 1,500 to 8,000 during this time and we do know she directly inspired Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, as well as Col. Guion Bluford, Dr. Ronald McNair and Dr. Sally Ride.  She also inspired Charles Bolden who is now the Administrator of  NASA.

Finally, she is a member of the board of Governors of the National Space Society and actively works to get kids interested in Science and Technology, something I really support!  It has been a lot of fun researching Nichelle.  If you have a minute take a look at these short interview clips or check out her autobiography Beyond Uhura – Star Trek and Other Memories.  Maybe some day I will be lucky enough to meet her in person!

Here are some of her works if you don’t already have them:

Jeff Jones

Travel – James Dean’s Fairmount, Indiana

Fairmount, Indiana sign

I have been a James Dean fan since I was a teenager living in Southern California.  So when we moved to the Midwest, within a couple of hours away from Fairmount, Indiana I knew we had to make a trip there.  Since reading several biographies about his life and career, it seemed strange to actually be visiting his hometown and seeing all the places I had read about but it was very exciting for this long-time James Dean fan!

So, in 2008 we took a quick drive over to Fairmount.  The town is small so it is very easy to drive to all the James Dean landmarks around the area.  A good place to start is the Fairmount Historical Museum which had a great collection of James Dean memorabilia, such as: newspaper clippings, family photos and letters, Dean’s personal clothing and items from his life in New York and Hollywood.  Next, we went to see the old Fairmount High School where Dean graduated in 1949 and as a student he excelled in drama, art and athletics.  The building is now abandoned and at the time we visited in 2009 there was a fence surrounding the building.

Fairmount Historical museum     Fairmount High School

A short drive away is the small James Dean Memorial Park.  Dedicated in 1995, 40 years after Dean’s death, the park was funded mostly by donations from his fans.  During the month of September, James Dean fans come from all over the world to this small town in Indiana for several days of local events to mark the life and death of this iconic movie actor.  The centerpiece of the park is a six foot high column with a special tribute plaque which is topped by a bronze bust of James Dean.  The story goes that shortly before his death; Dean had visited the studio of artist Kenneth Kendall because he admired a sculpture the artist had done of Marlon Brando.  Dean commissioned the artist to create his sculpture and Kendall, in a strange coincidence, began the work on the night of Dean’s death.  There is a duplicate of this statue located in Los Angeles, CA at the Griffith Observatory where Dean filmed several scenes from the movie, “Rebel Without a Cause”, including the famous knife fight scene.  The statue is located on the west side of the Observatory with a fantastic view of the Hollywood sign.

James Dean Memorial Park Old Motorcycle Shop Friends Church

Other James Dean landmarks in the Fairmount area include the motorcycle shop where Dean bought his first motorcycle and the Friends Church where Dean’s funeral was held in 1955.  Every year on September 30 to mark the anniversary of Dean’s death, a memorial service is held at the church for all Dean’s devoted fans that come from around the world for the James Dean Festival.  Located just outside of Fairmount is the Park Cemetery where Dean is buried next to his mother and father, Mildred and Winton Dean.  Also buried nearby are Marcus and Ortense Winslow, Dean’s Aunt and Uncle and he lived with from the age of nine to eighteen.  I am told that the Winslow family still owns the house and farm and it is located less than a mile from the cemetery.

James Dean gravesite Winslow Farm

Visiting Fairmount, Indiana and seeing these places was very exciting for this long-time James Dean fan!

SPECIAL TRAVEL NOTE:   All the sights mentioned can be seen year-round but a great time to visit is in late spring or summer when the weather is good.  Please note that the James Dean Festival is held every year in late September and Fairmount can be very crowded with fans coming from around the world.

The Brief Life of James Dean

James Bryon Dean (Born: February 8, 1931 Died: September 30, 1955) was a Broadway, television and film actor.  He was born in Marion, Indiana but the family moved to Santa Monica, California when he was six years old.  At the age of nine, Dean’s mother died and his father sent him to live with an Aunt and Uncle Winslow who owned a small farm near Fairmount, Indiana.

Dean briefly returned to California after his high school graduation to reunite with his father and enrolled in UCLA before he realized his true desire was to pursue an acting career.  Eventually Dean went to New York to become a Broadway stage actor and he also appeared in several early television programs.  He returned to Hollywood to make movies in the early 1950s.  He starred in only three films during his brief movie career.  His first film, “East of Eden”, was based on the classic John Steinbeck novel.  His second film, “Rebel Without a Cause”, proved to be his most successful movie in which he played his most famous role as a rebellious teenager.  His final film, “Giant”, was released after he was tragically killed in a car accident in 1955.  Because of the high risk involved, Dean was prevented from participating in his favorite sport, car racing.  After “Giant” had completed filming, he had entered a race in Salinas, CA and was on his way there when a tragic accident happened and he was killed, Dean was only 24 years old.

In 1997, a wealthy Japanese business man and devoted fan erected a stainless steel James Dean memorial sculpture in Cholame, California which is about a mile from where Dean’s car accident took place.  In 2005, on the 50th anniversary of the actor’s death, at the intersection of Highway 41 and 46 in Northern California, the site of the accident was renamed by the State of California to the James Dean Memorial Junction.