Zerlean James is somber as she watches African-Americans leave Fulshear.
The 82-year-old remembers the days when black residents worked in the city as sharecroppers, farmers, maids, cooks or, in her words, "whatever little work they could get."
They saved money, purchased a home and built their lives. But now, land passed down from generation to generation is being sold off because family members can't financially maintain it.
"When they leave property for the kids, it's not that they didn't want it," James told the Houston Chronicle . "They couldn't afford it."
But as African-American residents leave, Fulshear continues to grow. In the last decade, its 925 percent growth rate — from 1,200 people to nearly 12,000 — made it Texas' fastest-growing city between 2010 and 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Fulshear's growth, however, has diverged from the pattern of increasing diversity in Fort Bend County. The white share of Fulshear's population grew from 38 percent in 2010 to 63 percent in 2017. Countywide, the white population declined from 37 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2017.
In recent years, Fort Bend County has been touted as one of the most diverse places in the U.S. That racial and ethnic diversity is reflected among the county's top elected officials. KP George, the county judge, was born in India, and District Attorney Brian Middleton is black. In 2017, 29 percent of residents in Fort Bend were foreign born, and they contributed $11 billion to the gross domestic product of the county, George said.
"We are at least 50 years ahead of the rest of the country," George said about the county's diversity. "We are living in harmony. We are contributing to the well-being of this country. Our community is an example."
It's that diversity countywide that makes what's happening in Fulshear stand out.
The city's population growth and decline in diversity can be mostly tied to one development, said demographer Justin Silhavy of Population and Survey Analysts. In 2008, Cross Creek Ranch, a master-planned community, was established in Fulshear, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of downtown Houston. Over the years, the community continued to expand, and by 2018, over 10,000 people resided within the neighborhood. The average home price in Cross Creek Ranch exceeds $400,000, according to HAR.com. Large swaths of land, affordable housing and good schools attract people to the city in northwest Fort Bend County, according to an April 2019 demographic study by Population and Survey Analysts.
"When you have one community that's really the bulk of the population, whatever that community's culture is or makeup, whether it's ethnicity or home prices, that's going to be what your city population is," Silhavy said.
Kyle Shelton, deputy director at Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said newer developments far from Houston's core and isolated from more diverse neighborhoods often attract white, wealthy residents, although it's not "a hard and fast rule."
"What has typically happened if you look historically at the suburbanization of Houston, while it has diversified, oftentimes the kind of first wave of residents in many neighborhoods are more affluent and more white," Shelton said. "That doesn't mean there can't be diversity for sure, and obviously over time neighborhoods change."
Fulshear was a much different place when Viola Randle, the city's only African-American mayor, was a child on a farm helping her sharecropper parents in the 1930s.
Randle, 95, recalls walking 2 miles to school because there weren't any buses. She remembers everybody knowing everybody.
When she told people that she was from Fulshear, they would say "Oh, you live in the country?"
She's glad she stayed to see it mature into a city. She went from picking cotton and corn to becoming the mayor in the 1990s.
"Who would've thought it?" said Randle. "A little old farm girl."
Randle's nephew, Jackie Gilmore, the pastor for Greater Zachery Baptist Church, said the sheriff could recognize people's cars from the road, and stores closed in early evening. He's seen the roads transform from gravel to paved.
"It was a close-knit community," Gilmore, 59, said about growing up in the town. "You couldn't trade it. You couldn't buy it. I don't think you could find another community that was more involved one with another."
Gilmore and James said a considerable amount of land in Fulshear was originally owned by black residents who saved money to purchase property.
As the years passed, James said it became more difficult for African-Americans to make a living in the city, so they moved to Katy, Houston or other cities where they could find jobs. Some also left because they couldn't afford to keep up the property they purchased.
Fulshear's black population has declined from 29 percent in 2010 to a little under 6 percent in 2017. The Hispanic share of the population also has dropped, from 22 percent to a little more than 15 percent during that period.
However, the Asian population in Fulshear has increased from 3 percent in 2010 to nearly 12 percent in 2017. This is similar to Fort Bend County, where the Asian population has risen from 16 percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2017.
James, who has lived in her home since the late 1960s, said her property taxes have more than doubled, to over $2,000, since the early 2000s, even though she has two tax exemptions. Often, James said, younger residents are forced to sell land they inherit because they can't afford the taxes and maintenance.
Gilmore has been able to maintain his property, originally owned by his grandfather, a World War II veteran. But his property taxes have increased in the last 10 years, with his annual tax bill rising from $600 to $3,200 at its peak, although he has a homestead tax exemption. He said some African-American families each owned anywhere from 10 to 20 acres of land in Fulshear.
"It's sad that they've lost it," said Gilmore.
In 2012, Aaron Groff, 43, the city's current mayor, moved from Amarillo to Fulshear just as the city's population began to slowly increase.
Groff, his wife and two daughters settled in Cross Creek Ranch, which takes up 3,200 acres, has an Italian Café, walking trails and lakes.
Cross Creek Ranch was incorporated into the city of Fulshear, which doesn't always happen with new subdivisions, Silhavy explained.
"That's truly the reason why the population has exploded," Silhavy said. "You started with this small number, mainly the old city, and then Cross Creek comes in, and they start building 100, 200 homes a year."
Silhavy said some similarly priced subdivisions to Cross Creek Ranch have different demographics than Fulshear's and emphasized that neighborhood demographics vary. For example, he points to Fort Bend's Aliana subdivision, which is 60 percent Asian.
Silhavy said different factors can influence where residents settle such as word of mouth, marketing or proximity to a religious institution.
"In Fort Bend County, yeah the county is super diverse, but I'll tell you this, the neighborhoods necessarily are not," Silhavy said. "You can have one neighborhood that's almost fully Hispanic, and the next one over is almost fully Asian. It's just where people tend to migrate."
Groff said Fulshear's diversity is also more accurately reflected in the schools its students attend.
"If you walk into the schools that my daughters attend in Fulshear on Katy ISD side, there is a large amount of diversity," Groff said. "So, while it may not be as high at this time, that is quickly changing as well to reflect what the county looks like."
Silhavy notes that if data includes Fulshear's extraterritorial jurisdiction, then the city's white population is lowered to 56 percent.
Despite residents complaining about their rising property taxes, Groff said Fulshear's tax rate is the second-lowest in Fort Bend County. However, he said that rising property values due to Fulshear's rapid growth may cause some residents to see more of an effect on their tax bill.
For example, Groff said when he moved into his home in Cross Creek Ranch, his property value was already high because he lived in a new house in a new subdivision. Other residents who have resided in their home for years, like James, have seen a distinct change in their property value.
He also explained how Fulshear's average income level has changed through the years. Newer residents moving in are starting off with higher incomes as opposed to older and longtime residents who may have lower incomes, causing them to feel the burden of rising taxes even more. He said many longtime residents in Fulshear are blue-collar hourly workers.
In 2010, the median household income was $85,713 compared to $174,194 in 2017, according to census data that was adjusted for inflation.
To help offset those costs, he said they have lowered the water rate for residents by $15 and have absorbed $13 of solid waste service fees into the tax rate.
Ramona Ridge, 61, former City Council member, sees the positives of the city's growth. She notes the city's revenue is increasing, enabling officials to tackle projects and hire more staff members.
But Ridge also has watched "for sale" signs pop up around town and seen some residents retreat to smaller cities like Belville or Cat Spring.
"We are Fulshear, and we're trying our best to keep it that way," Ridge said. "It's hard because how do you hopefully make the right decisions to keep it unique?"
Growth will continue for the city, though, whether residents like it or not.
More than 50,000 people are expected to reside in Fulshear and its extraterritorial jurisdiction by 2023, according to the 2019 demographic study.
With the growth, though, Gilmore wants to hold onto some simple pleasures.
"You can still see the stars in the sky," Gilmore said. "That's what we are losing."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle