A few years ago, the Lisner-Louise Home, a small private nursing home on Western Avenue, was for whites only. The will of its founder, merchant Abraham Lisner, specified that it be a home for indigent white women who were Washington residents--in essence, for genteel women in reduced circumstances.
Members of the board of directors were in a quandary, recalls Executive Director Elizabeth Muchnick: They wanted to admit blacks, but felt bound by Lisner's will. They asked city officials to take them to court, Muchnick says, and in 1979--in anticipation of a D. C. Superior Court ruling that came a year later--Lisner-Louise admitted its first black resident. It now has eight black residents out of a total of 50.
The slow pace of change at Lisner-Louise is mirrored elsewhere in the District. Most of the city's private, nonprofit nursing homes have overwhelmingly white populations while most residents of the three city-run nursing homes are black, according to figures provided by the homes.
Officials at the private homes insist that this pattern is not a result of deliberate racial discrimination, which would be illegal, but in some cases reflects the past predominance of whites in the groups targeted for care by the nonprofit organizations sponsoring the homes. These groups include religious denominations, widows of high-ranking Army officers and Masonic organizations.
The Masonic and Eastern Star Home, for example, admits only Masons and Eastern Star members or their surviving spouses and therefore has no black residents, said Richard L. Culver, president of the home.
"It seems to me the colored have their own Masonic organization," Culver said. Most of the employes at the home are black, he added.
The overwhelmingly black population at the city's public facilities, by contrast, reflects the overall racial makeup of the District as well as the generally lower income levels for blacks that leave them with fewer choices, nursing home officials say.
The three private, for-profit nursing homes in the District report that a majority of their residents are black, and officials say that this may be in part because they are more willing than nonprofit homes to take low-income Medicaid patients in order to fill beds.
Juanita Thornton, chairwoman of the D. C. Commission on Aging, raised allegations at a recent meeting of the long-term care planning group that blacks are not admitted to some nursing homes in the city because of racial discrimination, according to individuals who attended that meeting.
As a result, Department of Human Services Acting Director David E. Rivers has asked Carol Thompson, D. C. director of consumer and regulatory affairs, to investigate the allegations and report to him this month.
Thornton declined to discuss the allegations until an investigation is completed. Thompson's office said that Rivers is being asked to provide more specifics on what he wants investigated before any action is taken.
A D. C. longterm-care plan developed by the city earlier this year noted that finding beds for Medicaid patients is made more complicated by various restrictions at some of the city's homes, such as age, sex or membership in a particular society. It also listed "being white" as one nursing home restriction found in the city, but city officials now say this is not correct.
The District government licenses and monitors the city's nursing home beds, and would not allow any to specifically exclude blacks because of race, officials say.
Paul A. Lavigne, longterm health care administrator, said his impression is that there is no deliberate discrimination, even in disguised form.
"In D. C. . . . income and payment source are probably more the explanation why some homes have no blacks than alleged racial discrimination," he said.
The city lists 18 facilities that have nursing home beds in the District. The list includes some establishments not generally considered nursing homes, such as the National Children's Center and Forest Haven, the city's home for the mentally retarded, as well as the federal U.S. Soldiers and Airmen's Home.
Excluding those, there are about 1,100 nursing home beds at the city's facilities, about 700 in nonprofit private homes and about 600 in for-profit homes. The last number is set to double next month with the opening of two new private, for-profit homes.
Of the nine private, nonprofit homes for the elderly in the District, three have no black residents. These are the Masonic Home, the Army Distaff Hall and the Methodist Home, according to administrators there. Only one--the 180-bed Health Care Institute--reported having a black majority.
The Army Distaff Hall is a residential home with a nursing unit for widows and other female relatives of high-ranking Army officers or elderly female officers. Officials there say that the lack of minorities reflects the past of the Army itself, which only recently began promoting blacks to high-ranking positions.
The average age at the home is 83 and most of the residents are widows of World War I officers, said Brig. Gen. Michael Greene, the home's executive director.
"It will be another 15 years" before the home is truly integrated, although some blacks probably will start coming to the home in the next few years, Greene said.
The Methodist Home, which admits persons 65 and older who have been church members in good standing for at least 10 years, has no blacks because only one or two have applied and they did not qualify for other reasons, said administrator Elsie Lesko.
"They blacks wouldn't be turned away," Lesko said. She said that the Methodist Home in Baltimore is all black and that may be why blacks do not apply more often to the home in D. C.
The Presbyterian Home is "99 percent white," according to Dorothy Crow, assistant director of residential services. The officials at the home, which is reserved for individuals who have been members of a local Presbyterian church for at least two years, have tried to find out why this is the case, she said. Crow said she believed that blacks more often tend to take care of their own within the family.
Sister Vincent at the Little Sisters of the Poor Home, which takes only low-income people, echoed Crow's opinion. The Little Sisters home has sent notices to various groups stressing that the home accepts minorities, but only 25 to 30 percent of the residents are black, she said.
Barbara Nash, formerly of the MarSalle Convalescent Home and now the first administrator of the soon-to-open Grant Park Home, approaches the discrimination issue from the unusual perspective of one of the few black nursing home administrators in the District.
"It is something new to the black race to be going into nursing homes," Nash said. Much of the division in nursing home residents is a function of income and whether the home takes Medicaid, she said. At Grant Park, for example, the cost for a patient will be $3,000 a month. Few patients could afford that out of their own pockets, she said.
As the stepdaughter of a Grand Mason in the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, the black order of the Masons, Nash was not surprised that the home sponsored by the white Masonic organization is not integrated.
"They are two distinct orders," she said, "and never shall they meet."