Born in Washington D.C. in 1961, she studied journalism at Howard University, becoming editor-in-chief of the college newspaper The Hilltop. During college, Wilkerson interned at many publications, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
In 1994, while Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times, she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, winning the feature writing award for her coverage of the 1993 midwestern floods and her profile of a 10-year-old boy who was responsible for his four siblings. Several of Wilkerson's articles are included in the book Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories: America's Best Writing, 1979 - 2003, edited by David Garlock.
She has also been the James M. Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory University, Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and the Kreeger-Wolf endowed lecturer at Northwestern University and Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction in the College of Communication at Boston University. She also served as a board member of the National Arts in Journalism Program at Columbia University.
After fifteen years of research and writing, she published, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, which examines the three geographic routes that were commonly used by African Americans leaving the southern states between 1915 and the 1970s, illustrated through the personal stories of people who took those routes. During her research for the book, Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people who made the migration from the South to Northern and Western cities. The book almost instantly hit number 5 on the New York Times Bestseller list for nonfiction and has since been included in lists of best books of 2010 by many reviewers, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Amazon.com, Salon.com, The Washington Post, The Economist, Atlanta Magazine and The Daily Beast. In March 2011 the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award (Nonfiction). The book also won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Sidney Hillman Book Prize, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction and was also the nonfiction runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011.
As of 2010, Wilkerson lived in the Virginia Highland neighborhood of Atlanta and, in a New York Times interview, remarked on being a part of a movement on the part of some African Americans to return to the South after generations in the North.
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (Random House, 2010) ISBN 978-0-679-44432-9
 Essays, Columns and Lectures
- The New American Reader: Recent Periodical Essays, edited by Gilbert H. Muller (McGraw-Hill, 1997)
- "He Put a Spin on Design", in The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells : a Celebration of Unusual Lives, edited by Marvin Siegel (William Morrow, 1997)
- "Superstars of Dreamland", in Best American Movie Writing, edited by George Plimpton (St. Martin’s Press, 1998)
- We Americans: Celebrating a Nation, Its People and Its Past, edited by Thomas B. Allen and Charles O. Hyman (National Geographic Society, 1999)
- "Two Boys, a Debt, a Gun, a Victim: The Face of Violence", in Writing the World: Reading and Writing about Issues of the Day, edited by Charles R. Cooper, Susan Peck MacDonald (Macmillan, 2000 ISBN 0-312-26008-3)
- Written into History: Pulitzer Prize Reporting of the Twentieth Century, edited by Anthony Lewis (Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2001)
- "First Born, Fast Grown: The Manful Life of Nicholas, 10", in Feature Writing for Newspapers and Magazines: The Pursuit of Excellence, edited by Edward Jay Friedlander and John Lee (HarperCollins College Publishers, 1997); and The Princeton Anthology of Writing, edited by John McPhee and Carol Rigolot (Princeton University Press, 2001)
- Various articles, Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories: America's Best Writing, 1979 - 2003, edited by David Garlock (Iowa State University Press, 1998; Wiley-Blackwell; 2nd edition, April 18, 2003)
- "Interviewing Sources", Spring 2002 Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference Report
- "Angela Whitiker's Climb", in Class Matters, by correspondents of The New York Times (Times Books, 2005)
- "Interviewing: Accelerated Intimacy", in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (Plume Penguin Books, January 30, 2007)
- 1993 George S. Polk Award for Regional Reporting, in The New York Times
- 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for Feature Writing
- 1994 Journalist of the Year award from the National Association of Black Journalists
- 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award (Nonfiction), winner, The Warmth of Other Suns
- 2011 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work Debut Author, nominated, The Warmth of Other Suns
- 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, winner, The Warmth of Other Suns.
- "Emory University Education Program". Emory University. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
- "30 Moments in Journalism". NABJ. Retrieved 2008-06-18.[dead link]
- "First Born, Fast Grown: The Manful Life of Nicholas, 10 (April 4, 1993)" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
- "List of Guggenheim Fellows". Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- "George Polk Award winners". Long Island University. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
- "National Association of Black Journalists: Past Award winners". NABJ. Archived from the original on 2008-06-01. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
- "Isabel Wilkerson, Director, Narrative Nonfiction Program". Boston University. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Random House official website.
- "Great Migration: The African-American Exodus North". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- Teresa Weaver. "The Shelf: Top Ten of 2010". Atlanta Magazine. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- Laura Miller. "The best nonfiction books of 2010". Salon.com. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- "A Year’s Reading: Reviewers’ favorites from 2010". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- "Books of the Year: Page turners". The Economist. 2010-12-02. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- "Best nonfiction of 2010". The Washington Post. 2010-12-10. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- "The Best of the Best Books 2010". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- Charles McGrath, "A Writer’s Long Journey to Trace the Great Migration", New York Times, September 8, 2010.
- Isabel Wilkerson Tracks Exodus of Blacks from US South - video interview by Democracy Now!
- Time: Isabel Wilkerson on Black America's Immigration Story
- The Lives Gained by Fleeing Jim Crow By Janet Maslin, New York Times Book Review
- Works by or about Isabel Wilkerson in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- C-SPAN Q&A interview with Wilkerson, September 26, 2010