The campus of the University of California, Riverside, is in a state of mourning after Tyler Hilliard, 20, died while pledging the prestigious Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. Hilliard, who was a junior at the college, died Saturday, Sept. 15, during a pledge session at Mount Rubidoux near the campus.
According to information released by the university and police, Hilliard collapsed during what A Phi A members call a “Gold Paddle Day.”
Police received a call from the fraternity’s pledge master that Hilliard was in medical distress, and first responders were dispatched. Media outlet KTLA-News reported that Hilliard’s heart stopped at least seven times during treatment before he was pronounced dead on Sunday.
His mother, Myeasha Kimble-Hilliard was in the emergency room and confronted members of Alpha Phi Alpha to find out what happened. When she asked the pledge master about the incident, Kimble-Hilliard said, “He said that they were about to go for a hike at Mount Rubidoux — they had not started hiking yet — and that Tyler was feeling short of breath. … Shortly after that, he collapsed, and (the pledge master) called 911.”
However, text messages sent that night to his cousin, Robyn Fountain, indicated that Hilliard was being hazed as part of the fraternity’s “Gold Paddle Day.” When asked about the text and the meaning of “Gold Paddle Day,” Fountain stated to media, “So, I don’t know. I assume that means that they were going to be beaten in the wilderness.”
Because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Hilliard’s death, police have launched a homicide investigation. Officer Ryan Railsback of the Riverside Police Department, is quoted as saying, “It’s a little bit suspicious, a 20-year-old young man, [a] college student, passing away like this.”
Officially, hazing is banned by each of the nine international Black Greek-letter sororities and fraternities, which are collectively are known as “The Divine 9.” In the mid-1980s hazing of pledges was rampant, and there were instances of pledges being severely injured or even dying while pledging.
In 1987, on the campus of Morehouse College, an Alpha Phi Alpha pledge suffered a heart attack during an intense hazing session and later died. It created a serious issue on the campus, and that chapter was suspended for one semester. The chapter at Morehouse College, known as Alpha Rho, is considered elite even among some other Alpha chapters, due, in part, to some of its famous brothers, who included the late Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.
It was during this time period that the word was given to brothers of all the Black fraternities that they were essentially one lawsuit away from extinction. As a result, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which is comprised of the nine Black Greek-letter fraternities and sororities, was united in stating that hazing — whether physical or mental — was outlawed. Individual chapters were informed that if a member of the organization was found hazing they could suffer expulsion from the fraternity and prosecution by law enforcement with no support from the national organization. Soon even the word “pledging” was eradicated from some Black Greek organizations, and the phrase “membership intake” became the norm. Despite that, other instances of hazing have been reported.
The national headquarters of Alpha Phi Alpha issued the following statement:
“Working with the university, the fraternity has launched an investigation into the situation and has placed the chapter on an immediate cease and desist status, suspending all activities. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. does not condone and strictly prohibits any illegal acts, including hazing in any form, whether physical or mental, as a term or condition of membership in the organization. Any member found violating the fraternity’s anti-hazing policy will be immediately suspended with a recommendation for expulsion. “
The chapter at UC-Riverside has been suspended while the investigation into the death of Tyler Hilliard continues. Alpha Phi Alpha was founded on the campus of Cornell University and is the first Black Greek letter organization in the United States.