Before Rosa Parks: Ida B. Wells

The title “Before Rosa Parks” loosely links a number of lessons that discuss African-American women who were active in the fight for civil rights before the 1950s. This lesson highlights Ida B. Wells, who worked tirelessly for racial justice in the South, especially concerning lynching.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to: 

  • consider the strategies Ida B. Wells deployed to raise awareness of social problems. 
  • weigh the effectiveness of nonconformity to address a specific audience. 
  • use Wells' story to write about a personal experience of conformity or non-conformity. 
  • understand some of the economic and social problems facing the South after the Civil War.
Essential Questions
  • What is a non-conformist, and why does it takes courage to be one?
  • Enduring Understandings:
    • A non-conformist is someone who defies social norms and customs. It takes courage to be a non-conformist because doing so sometimes results in being ostracized (excluded from society).


  • lynch [linch] (verb) to illegally kill someone by mob action 
  • Jim Crow laws [jim kroh] (noun) a series of laws passed in the South after the Civil War to enforce segregation
  • Ku Klux Klan [koo kluhks klan] (noun) a white supremacist organization formed shortly after the Civil War, whose main activity in the late 19th and early 20th century was to terrorize blacks who challenged white supremacy 
  • non-conformist [non-kuhn-fawr-mist] (noun) a person who defies social norms and customs 
  • woman suffrage [suhf-rij] (noun)  the movement, consolidated in the 1860s, to demand a constitutional amendment granting women the vote 


Suggested Procedure

1.  Explain to students that they are going to read about Ida B. Wells, a non-conformist, civil rights activist and anti-lynching crusader. Distribute the handout, asking for a volunteer to read the brief biographical description of Wells. Ask students what they know about the italicized vocabulary: Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, "separate but equal," anti-lynching campaign, woman suffrage and non-conformist. Clarify terms if necessary; see glossary. 

2. Divide the class into groups and ask them to discuss the “Pre-Writing Questions for Reflection” at the bottom of the handout. On a separate piece of paper, have students write their answers to the questions. Then discuss as a whole class. Afterward, ask students for a show of hands if they can relate to Wells’ act of non-conformity. 

3. Explain to students that now that they’ve read about Wells and her non-conformist behavior, they are going to complete an independent writing assignment sharing a personal experience of conformity or non-conformity, and what they learned from the experience. Remind students to include well-chosen details and events when writing their stories.

Common Core State Standards: R.1, R.2, R.4, W.3, W.4, SL.1 


Extension Activity

Encourage students to plan and implement a “non-conformity campaign” in their school/community. Ask student to brainstorm ways non-conformity might add to positive school climate and then have students share what they learned about Wells and non-conformity with others. Lastly, have students create and circulate a pledge to members of the community that commits to celebrating individuals.