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. 
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.