Penny Umbers was 16 years old when she met 17-year-old Mark Bethel from the Bahamas. They had a spark the first day they set eyes on each other at a private school in Nottingham. Their young love was nurtured through sharing of love letters, poems and paintings in the 1970s.
But, doom visited their blossoming love story when the two had to separate because of the color of their skin. Bethel had at the time gained admission to the University of London on a scholarship while Umbers attended a polytechnic college close to Bethel so they could often meet, according to Birmingham Mail.
Then suddenly, Bethel told Umbers he wanted a breakup without giving any reason. Umbers only learned why after 40 years when she spoke to Bethel in 2019. Umbers got to know of the betrayal perpetrated by her father. She was surprised to know that her father had asked Bethel to forget about her and bury whatever feelings he had for her. Bethel said he was broken but it was the only option he had because he was alone in England and couldn’t jeopardize his scholarship.
Umber’s father threatened Bethel that he would ensure his scholarship was canceled if he did not end his relationship with his daughter. “I didn’t realize but my father went to Mark’s university and called him out of a lecture into the vice principal’s office,” she said. “My father told him he knew people in high places and would have his scholarship revoked if he didn’t stop seeing me, and that I must know nothing about this.”
Bethel had already fallen out with his parents because he had refused to accept their career choice of wanting him to become an architect. His parents cut support for him, so his only hope was his scholarship from the University of London. They had also sent him a strong message that it was taboo for him to date a white girl as that could jeopardize his scholarship.
Going their separate ways may have helped the two career-wise but Bethel and Umbers never had a stable love life. Bethel ventured into hotel management but he could not sustain his marriage so he divorced. Umbers had her own share of divorce after a failed marriage.
Bethel kept researching Penny Umbers but her name had changed when she married. “Then one day I found a photo of her in a black outfit outside Windsor Castle. Thirty-nine years on, I wasn’t sure if it was her. I sent her repeated messages but she wasn’t really a Facebook user so it was a couple of months before she saw it.”
They reconnected in June 2021 after that Facebook message. Now in their early 60s, Bethel recalled how they shed a tear or two when both of them met again in the Bahamas. He couldn’t believe they had reconnected after a stiff opposition to their love.
He was of the view that if their love was not meant to be, their reunion would not have been possible. There are very few mixed-race couples in the Bahamas, but, the two are certain of making their love blossom again. Bethel proposed to Penny in October last year, her second time visiting the Bahamas after they reconnected in June. Bethel asked her to marry him the moment she stepped out of the plane.
Bethel said he was aware of racism being rife in England but he never believed he would become a victim, and since then, he had fought social injustice everywhere he found himself. He and Umbers have written a book titled “Thirty Nine Years in the Wilderness” to document their trials and raise awareness about their experience to serve as an inspiration to others.