One of the most prominent reporters in the country, Isabel Wilkerson first gained national attention in 1994, when she became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. During her career at the New York Times, she developed her own distinctive style of narrative reporting, one that requires an unusual degree of empathy and close attention to detail.
Isabel Wilkerson was born in Washington, DC, in 1961. Her parents, both natives of the South, had remained in Washington after meeting at Howard University, one of the city's leading institutions. Their migration northward would later inspire Wilkerson to begin work on a narrative history of the other African Americans, millions in number, who made similar migrations out of the South between 1900 and the end of the civil-rights era. Commenting on this Great Migration, Wilkerson noted in 2006 to Kim Urquhart in the Emory Report, "It was something in my history that I had taken for granted, but if my parents had not been participants in this movement, I wouldn't be here today."
Wilkerson's work in journalism began with her high-school newspaper, which she edited. After graduation, she entered Howard University, where she immediately began work as a reporter for The Hilltop, its highly regarded campus paper. She soon rose to become its editor-in-chief. By 1983, when she received her bachelor's degree, she had attracted the attention of newspaper editors across the country, thanks in part to her determined and successful pursuit of internships at the Washington Post and other influential papers. Also helpful in this regard was the Mark of Excellence Award she received from the Society of Professional Journalists for the best feature writing by a college student. After a year as a feature writer at the Detroit Free Press Wilkerson moved in 1984 to the New York Times, where she worked as a metropolitan reporter, covering court news and local politics, for two years. Then, in 1986 she was promoted to national correspondent, a post she held until 1991. Based in Detroit, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois, Wilkerson covered a variety of Midwestern stories that she and her editors believed deserved a national audience. In 1986, for example, she wrote movingly of the controversy surrounding an Indiana judge's imposition of the death penalty on a sixteen-year-old girl convicted of a brutal murder; the sentence was later commuted to sixty years in prison. A year later, she portrayed the miraculous survival of a four-year-old girl after a fiery plane crash in Detroit.
Even at this relatively early stage of her career, Wilkerson's obvious empathy for the people she interviewed set her stories apart from those of her peers. Describing her approach in the Emory Report, Wilkerson told Urquhart, "In the end, nothing really matters until I can see from the perspective of the human heart." Noting the enthusiastic response of readers, the management of the Times offered Wilkerson the job of Chicago bureau chief in 1991. It was an almost unprecedented promotion for someone only about thirty years of age.
Wilkerson thrived as a bureau chief, in part because the position allowed her to spend weeks, even months, covering a single story. This methodical approach paid dividends in 1993, when she received from Long Island University the annual George Polk Award for regional reporting. Nineteen ninety-three was also the year in which three of her best-known stories appeared. Two of these concerned the aftermath of a devastating flood in the small Missouri town of Hardin. The third was an in-depth study of a ten year-old boy's daily life in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. Wilkerson spent weeks with the boy, Nicholas, and his family. The profile that resulted, entitled "First Born, Fast Grown: The Manful Life of Nicholas, 10," is a wrenching portrayal of a boy forced by desperate circumstances to assume an adult's responsibilities. "He is all boy—squirming in line, sliding down banisters, shirt-tail out, shoes untied, dreaming of becoming a fireman so he can save people—but his walk," Wilkerson wrote of Nicholas, "is the stiff slog of a worried father behind on the rent."
Nicholas's story and the two Missouri pieces brought Wilkerson the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The award was a milestone in American journalism. Though African-American women had won Pulitzers in other fields, none had won for journalism. Wilkerson was also the first African American, male or female, to win for individual reporting. In the citation (quoted by an anonymous writer in the New York Times on April 13, 1994) that accompanied the award, the Pulitzer Committee praised "the high literary quality and originality" of Wilkerson's work.
The year after her Pulitzer, Wilkerson stepped down as Chicago bureau chief to become a senior writer for the Times, with the authority to pursue stories across the nation. In the late 1990s, however, she took a leave of absence to undertake a variety of outside projects, several of which involved teaching. In 1996-97, for example, she served as Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. She has also lectured at Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Emory University, where she was named the James M. Cox Professor of Journalism in 2006. Her courses at Emory have included one on the history and ethics of journalism. In addition to teaching, Wilkerson has continued to contribute occasional articles to the Times and other publications. Particularly notable in this regard was a 2005 follow-up piece in the Times on the mother of Nicholas, the Chicago boy she had profiled a dozen years earlier. Entitled "Angela Whitiker's Climb," the article was reprinted in Class Matters (Times Books, 2005), a collection of essays on the changing boundaries of social class in America.
In 2008 Wilkerson was concentrating on her history of the Great Migration, a book that has occupied her for many years. She first won support for the project during the late 1990s, receiving a publisher's advance in 1997 and a research fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation the following year. Since that time, however, the work has grown to monumental proportions. In a sign of the painstaking approach that has long been her trademark, Wilkerson had personally conducted more than 1,500 interviews for the book, tentatively titled North by South.
At a Glance …
Born in 1961 in Washington, DC; married. Education: Howard University, BA, 1983.
Career: Detroit Free Press, feature writer, 1983-84; New York Times, metropolitan reporter, 1984-86, national correspondent, 1986-91, Chicago bureau chief, 1991-95, senior writer, 1995-; Princeton University, Ferris Professor of Journalism, 1996-97; Emory University, James M. Cox Professor of Journalism, 2006—.
Awards: Mark of Excellence Award for best feature writing by a college student, Society of Professional Journalists, early 1980s; George Polk Award for regional reporting, Long Island University, 1993; Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, 1994; Journalist of the Year, National Association of Black Journalists, 1994.
Addresses: Office—c/o Journalism Program, Mailstop 1535-001-1AB, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322; E-mail—[email protected]
(Contributor) Class Matters, Times Books, 2005.
Emory Report, September 25, 2006.
Quadrangle (Emory University), Spring 2008, pp. 4-5.
New York Times, November 2, 1986; August 19, 1987; April 4, 1993; April 13, 1994; June 12, 2005.
Estrov, Anya, "Isabel Wilkerson," New York University Journalism Department, http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/race_class/thiercernese/speaker5.htm (accessed November 6, 2008).
"Isabel Wilkerson, Journalism," Emory University Provost's Office, September 2007, http://www.emory.edu/PROVOST/greatscholars/IsabelWilkerson.htm (accessed November 6, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler