Juneteenth Celebration in Pinebluff Disrupted by Alleged Hate Crime

The following articles first appeared in The Pilot on Oct. 21, 2021, and on Jan. 7, 2022

‘Still Fighting the Same Battles’: Alleged Hate Crime at Pinebluff Park Detailed During Forum

Mitch Capel speaks during a community forum on racial intolerance at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church on Oct. 14, 2021.

Mitch Capel remembers seeing crosses burning near Cardinal Park when he was a child.

The park was established along the shore of a spring-fed lake in Pinebluff by Capel’s parents in the early 1960s. At the time, it was one of the few places in Moore County where Black people could go swimming.

Capel’s father, the late Felton Capel, was known for breaking racial barriers. He led the push to integrate local schools and was the first Black person elected to the Southern Pines Town Council.

Choking back tears as he looked down at the wristwatch he inherited from his father, Mitch Capel recalled a recent incident at Cardinal Park that is now being investigated by police as a hate crime.

“I never thought in a million years that I’d still be fighting the same battles that my father and our ancestors fought,” he said.

Capel spoke publicly about the incident for the first time during a community forum on racial intolerance earlier this month at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southern Pines.

According to an affidavit Capel filed with the Moore County Magistrate’s Office, the park’s Juneteenth celebration was disrupted by a man, identified in court documents as Russell Thomas Langford, who allegedly flipped a middle finger to event-goers while driving a pickup truck through the private property. The affidavit alleges that Langford then “discharged firearms” from his own property on Prosperity Way, which is near the park.

“It went on for 35 minutes but it seemed like an eternity,” Capel said of the gunshots. “Everybody kept looking around wondering what was going on.”

Langford reportedly returned to the park and began tossing out bumper stickers in support of former President Donald J. Trump. He later used “racial slurs” while questioning the attendees’ knowledge of Juneteenth, according to the affidavit.

“He started saying ‘you people don’t even know your own history, you people don’t even know what Juneteenth means,’” said Capel, who had never before interacted with Langford. “So I broke down our history as fast as I could in about three sentences, and then I broke down Juneteenth to him.”

Juneteenth commemorates the date that enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed under the emancipation proclamation signed two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln. Two days before the celebration at Cardinal Park, President Joe Biden signed a law recognizing the observance as a federal holiday.

In a video shared with The Pilot, Capel and other individuals can be seen escorting Langford out of the park. The video shows Langford backing his truck into a wooden gate post twice before driving away.

Langford, 41, is a former Army Reserve officer who served in the military from 2003 to 2019, according to information provided by the U.S. Army Reserve Command at Fort Bragg. He is highly decorated, having earned more than a dozen awards including the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service medals.

He has also been accused before of harassing members of a marginalized community. He made national news in 2016 after police said he threatened to kill Muslims and left packages of bacon — a food forbidden by Islamic law — at a mosque in Raeford.

Langford later pleaded guilty to ethnic intimidation in federal court. In a news release announcing his conviction, the U.S. Department of Justice said Langford “admitted that he acted intentionally to threaten the mosque’s members and obstruct their religious exercise.” He was sentenced to eight months of home confinement in 2017.

“It’s just insane that there are people out there like that in this day in society who think like that, who drink that Kool-Aid, who hate people because of how they look or how they pray,” Capel said. “It’s insane to think that.”

A warrant was issued on June 21 charging Langford with ethnic intimidation, injury to personal property and littering in connection with the incident at Cardinal Park. He was arrested 12 days later and placed in the Moore County Detention Center under a $75,000 bond, which was later posted by an agent for Palmetto Surety Corporation of South Carolina.

Attempts to reach Langford for comment were unsuccessful. Langford’s privately retained attorney, Kelly Dawkins, did not respond to messages from The Pilot seeking comment.

Langford’s case has been continued twice in Moore County District Court. His next court appearance is set for Dec. 3.

In addition to managing the park, Capel is a professional storyteller who performs under the stage name Gran’daddy Junebug. He had been reluctant to talk about what happened on Juneteenth, he said, because he feared it would overshadow the otherwise successful celebration, which was attended by more than 750 people.

“I tried to hide it from everybody because I didn’t want it to ruin the day,” he said.

But at the urging of Jim Davis, former sheriff of Hoke County, Capel decided to share his experience with the Moore County chapter of the NAACP.

The forum at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church was organized by the chapter, and included a panel discussion with representatives from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice and the N.C. Attorney General’s Office. Dion Lyons, a conciliation specialist with the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, moderated the conversation, which mainly focused on how hate crimes are identified and investigated by state and federal agencies.

Lyons said that Moore County District Attorney Mike Hardin was unable to attend the forum because he was preparing for an upcoming murder trial. O’Linda Watkins-McSurely, president of the Moore County NAACP, said the sheriff’s office had also been invited to participate but did not attend.

The June 19 incident at Cardinal Park is one of eight local hate crimes reported to the Moore County NAACP since 2003. Last year, a woman in Southern Pines filed a complaint alleging that she saw two people in Ku Klux Klan regalia sitting in a parked SUV in front of her home.

“Never in my 29 years of living have I ever been so scared for my life,” the individual wrote in the complaint, which was read by Watkins-McSurely during the forum. On Thursday, Watkins-McSurely told a reporter that the complaint is still under investigation.

The KKK’s intimidation tactics are painfully familiar to Capel, who said he saw “crosses being burnt” on hillsides in Pinebluff as a child. He said he also remembers seeing the hate group’s symbols and slogans spray-painted on buildings at his parents’ park.

Capel said he decided to file a criminal complaint following the Juneteenth incident at the park because it was the “right thing to do.”

“I did it because I knew my father would have done it and I knew my ancestors would have done it,” he said. “I knew it was a hate crime.”


Ex-Army Officer Sentenced to Probation After Disrupting Juneteenth Event in Pinebluff

Screenshots from a video showing Russell Langford at Cardinal Park on June 19, 2021.

A former Army Reserve officer was found guilty Tuesday of multiple misdemeanor offenses following his disruption of a Juneteenth celebration in Pinebluff, but he avoided what would have been his second conviction for ethnic intimidation.

Russell Thomas Langford, 41, was sentenced to 18 months of probation by Judge Regina Joe for littering, injury to personal property and disorderly conduct in connection with a series of disturbances that occurred on June 19 at Cardinal Park, a venue of historical significance to the Black community in Moore County.

Langford, who served in the military from 2003 to 2019, had been accused before of harassing members of a marginalized community. He made national news in 2016 after police said he threatened to kill Muslims and left packages of bacon — a food forbidden by Islamic law — at a mosque in Raeford. He later pleaded guilty to ethnic intimidation in federal court.

Mitch Capel, manager of Cardinal Park, said last year’s incident began when Langford, who is white, drove his pickup truck through the private property while flipping a middle finger to people attending a Juneteenth event. Capel, who is Black, alleged that Langford then “discharged firearms” from his own property on Prosperity Way, which is near the park.

Langford returned to the park, Capel said, and began tossing out bumper stickers in support of former President Donald J. Trump. He later used “racial slurs” while questioning the event-goers’ knowledge of Juneteenth, Capel said.

Juneteenth commemorates the date that enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed under the emancipation proclamation signed two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln. Two days before the celebration at Cardinal Park, President Joe Biden signed a law recognizing the observance as a federal holiday.

In a video submitted as evidence in Moore County District Court, Capel and other individuals are seen escorting Langford out of the park. The video then shows Langford striking a wooden gatepost three times with the back of his truck before driving away.

In the eyes of prosecutors, the property damage caused by Langford was enough to charge him with ethnic intimidation under state law, which makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to “damage or deface the property” of another individual “because of race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin.”

Joe, who herself is Black, disagreed, ruling that Langford was not guilty of ethnic intimidation. In a phone interview after the trial, District Attorney Mike Hardin said he was disappointed with the verdict, but “understand[s] the judge’s reasoning.”

“From a legal standpoint, I think she was following the strict letter of the statute,” Hardin said. “That’s a hard decision to make but I think she made the decision that she believed was right, and that’s all you can ask from a judge.”

The challenge created by the statute, Hardin said, was showing that Langford intended to damage the gatepost because of Capel’s race.

“When you watch the video, there’s no doubt that he’s trying to start trouble,” Hardin said. “But the question is did he go there with the intent to damage the property, or did he go there with the purpose to start trouble and then ended up damaging the property?”

Langford did not testify during the trial. His privately retained attorney, Kelly Dawkins, argued that he did not deliberately strike the gatepost and suggested that unspecified psychological issues and alcoholism may have contributed to Langford’s behavior at Cardinal Park.

In an interview after the trial, Capel said he appreciated the work done by prosecutors and accepted Joe’s rationale.

“The judge did the best she could do within the law, but I just don’t understand how someone can ride through an African American-owned park on a national, federal African American holiday with their middle finger up, using the N-word, taunting and being belligerent, and that’s not considered ethnic intimidation,” Capel said. “If that’s not ethnic intimidation then what is? That statute needs to be changed.”

Cardinal Park was established along the shore of a spring-fed lake in Pinebluff by Capel’s parents in the early 1960s. At the time, it was one of the few places in Moore County where Black people could go swimming.

Capel’s father, the late Felton Capel, was known for breaking racial barriers. He led the push to integrate local schools and was the first Black person elected to the Southern Pines Town Council.

In addition to managing the park, Mitch Capel is a professional storyteller who performs under the stage name Gran’daddy Junebug. He said he had initially been reluctant to pursue charges against Langford because he feared the incident would overshadow the otherwise successful Juneteenth celebration, which was attended by more than 750 people.

But then he asked himself: “What would my father do?”

“He always sought justice and always did things because they were the right thing to do,” Mitch Capel said. “He wouldn’t have let it go, and I couldn’t let it go. I have to live with myself, and I had to know that I did what was right and that I stood up to hatred.”

Although Langford was not found guilty of ethnic intimidation, Hardin said he was pleased to see him convicted of the other crimes he committed on Juneteenth.

“I think everybody, even Mr. Langford, knew that he had acted inappropriately and violated the law,” Hardin said.


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