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Teen sweethearts forced to split as parents disapproved of their mixed-race love. 39 yrs later, they reunited.

The couple is now sharing their story in a book called 'Thirty-Nine Years in the Wilderness,' to help raise awareness of this important issue.

Teen sweethearts forced to split as parents disapproved of their mixed-race love. 39 yrs later, they reunited.
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/Henrik Sorensen

A couple forced apart as teenagers due to the color of their skin are tying the knot nearly four decades later. Penny Umbers and Mark Bethel first met towards the end of the 1970s when the then-17-year-old Bethel flew from the Bahamas to study at a private school in Nottingham. The duo soon fell in love and kept their teenage romance alive by sending each other love letters, poems, and paintings when Bethel had to return home. They reunited once again not long after when he got to come back on a scholarship to go to university in London and Umbers attended a polytechnic college nearby so that they could be close to each other.


Although their relationship seemed destined, it came to a sudden end when one day out of the blue, Bethel told the love of his life that he was ending the relationship. He never gave her a reason as to why he was taking such a drastic step and unable to cope with the heartbreak, Umbers quit college and even attempted suicide. Although she eventually married and divorced twice, she could never forget her long-lost love. Finally, in 2019, she received a message from Bethel and once they got talking, she was shocked to learn the truth behind their separation.


"When we spoke in 2019, Mark told me, for the first time, what had happened at school," said Umbers, reports Birmingham Mail. "He had been talking to my father in the garden and I remember thinking they had so much in common because they both liked sports. But in actual fact, my father had said to him 'you've had your fun, now move on boy.' It absolutely shattered him, he was such a sweet lovely boy and he was really in love with me." Her father's threats got much worse when Bethel returned to England to go to university in London.


"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," said Umbers. "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. It was a difficult position for a 19-year-old guy thousands of miles from home to be in. His parents had wanted him to be an architect and had stopped supporting him. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. They had told him he should not be having a relationship with a White girl. He couldn't have survived in London without his scholarship and he would have had to have gone back to the Bahamas with no degree and his parents saying 'told you so.'"


"We'd sent each other love letters. He'd sent me poems and paintings too. It was very romantic. He was everything to me, he made me feel so loved, and so to not see or hear from him was unbelievable," she added. Bethel finished his degree and went on to travel the world, working in hotel management. Although he too had a failed union, he never forgot his first love. "When we first met, I fell for her and it was magic. When her father spoke to me, I couldn't believe I was in that situation," he said. "I didn't have much power. I was 3,000 miles from home in a foreign country. I was totally dependent on my scholarship. I had to make the hardest decision of my life and I had to make it in isolation. I had no support mechanism, no friends or family, I couldn't explain to her why I just wanted it to end. It was heartbreaking."


"I kept researching Penny Umbers but her name had changed when she married," Bethel continued. "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. I just said 'Is this Penny?' and then it was! I felt nervous, apprehensive, happy, and giddy." The couple — now aged 60 and 61 — were kept apart for another 18 months due to pandemic travel restrictions, and it was an emotional reunion for the two when Umbers flew out to see Bethel in the Bahamas in June 2021. Although she returned home after three months, she flew back in October and the moment she got off the plane, Bethel proposed to her.


"I've never loved anyone the way I love Mark," said Umbers. "I feel like a whole new person. My confidence has come back. I had a defeatist attitude whereas I stand up tall now knowing he did love me after all. It was so difficult to think the man I loved didn't love me. I thought if he had discussed it with me, maybe we could have done something about it but he was far more accepting of authority and less rebellious than me. He wanted to fit in and do well, and he has done it in life. But he had to make sacrifices to do that." The couple is now sharing their incredible story in a book called Thirty-Nine Years in the Wilderness, which they wrote with the help of a ghostwriter through Story Terrace to help raise awareness of this important issue.

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