CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Eighty years ago, at the height of World War II, the first Black Marines arrived for basic training at Camp Montford Point, a segregated section of Camp Lejeune. Between 1942 and 1949, 20,000 men trained there. A ceremony was held at the Montford Point Marine Memorial to recognize those trailblazers who often go unmentioned in stories of African Americans in the military.
"This is not Marine Corps history or Black history. This is American history," said National Montford Point Marine Association President James T. Averhart.
Black and Indigenous men were barred from being recruited into Marine Corp until 1942 when pressure from Black activists led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing an executive order that banned "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government," according to the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Four Montford Point Marines were guests of honor at Friday's ceremony, including retired Marine Corp. George McIvory. He recalled what he saw when he first arrived to boot camp.
"What I saw, I was ready to turn around," said McIvory. "They want you to fail, but knowing me, I'm dogmatic. I don't believe in giving up."
McIvory is one of only 2,000 Montford Point Marines who have received a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the men collectively in 2012. That leaves 18,000 men who have yet to receive this honor.
The National Montford Point Marine Association and surviving relatives are working to find them. It's a difficult task because there's no complete roster of all of the men. The ABC Owned Television Stations have been lending a hand to help find the Marines and their families.
"I saw your story where you're researching and looking for families that were Montford Point Marines survivors. I reached out to you and you got the ball rolling," said North Carolina resident Lavita Rocha.
Her father, Sgt. Thomas Reeves of Princeville, North Carolina, was a Montford Point Marine and she never knew of her dad's unsung role in history until recently. Her family is one of 11 who received the Congressional Gold Medal at the 80th-anniversary celebration. All of the families were overwhelmed with emotion over the memory of their loved ones and the historical significance of the day.
"I see the sacrifice of my father and other young Black men that accepted the challenge to join the Marines during a time it was segregated. They had the courage to step up and fight for their country," said Rocha.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Maurice Smith received the medal on behalf of his grandfather Sgt. Fred Mozzell.
"There is no way I could be a Marine today without Marines like him and other Montford Point Marines that served," said Smith.
His mother, Shirley DeBerry, said she always knew her father was special. That's why when she found out a few weeks ago he was a Montford Point Marine it all made sense. She was amazed at a never-before-seen photo of him hanging in the Montford Point Marine Museum, on what's now known as Camp Johnson.
"He would be so proud. It would make him so proud to know he has a grandson that followed in his footsteps," she said.
It is because of her father's accomplishments that her son is standing on his grandfather's shoulders as a proud Marine of 30 years.
"If I could say anything to my grandfather today, we did it. We did it," said Master Gunnery Sgt. Smith.
These families hope the legacy of the Montford Point Marines, like the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen, will be revered in American history and never forgotten.