The first East Texas Historical Association began when W. F. Garner, chairman of the Department of History at Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College, invited members of his faculty and of the faculties at Sam Houston State Teachers College and East Texas State Teachers College to form an organization to promote the study of East Texas history. The group met in Nacogdoches from April 20 to 30, 1927, and annually thereafter on college campuses in Huntsville, Commerce, and Nacogdoches, until it disbanded because of the Great Depression in 1932. An annual issue of papers read at the meetings was also published. Historical papers were read at its meetings by such historians as Eugene C. Barker of the University of Texas, Martha Emmons of Nacogdoches High School and later Baylor College, and the Rev. George L. Crocket, who served as the first president of the association.
In 1962 a successor East Texas Historical Association came into being as a result of the work of Ralph W. Steen and C. K. Chamberlain, respectively president and history-department chairman at Stephen F. Austin State College, and attorneys F. I. Tucker of Nacogdoches and F. Lee Lawrence of Tyler. Lay and professional historians in East Texas received invitations to a meeting held on the SFA campus in Nacogdoches on September 29, 1962. They wrote a new constitution (revised in 1981), calling for an annual meeting each fall in Nacogdoches and a spring meeting elsewhere in East Texas; the publication of a semiannual publication, the East Texas Historical Journal; and the collection and deposit of archival material in the library at Stephen F. Austin State College. Lawrence served as the first president, and Chamberlain became editor of the journal, a post he held until 1971. Because charter membership was left open for many months, the association claims 425 charter members. Its officers are alternately lay and professional historians. In addition to a president, first and second vice presidents, and a secretary-treasurer, seven members serve alternating three-year terms on the board of directors; Stephen F. Austin State University appoints two ex officio members; in the early 1990s Lawrence was director emeritus.
Chamberlain was succeeded by Archie P. McDonald, who served as executive director, a position established in 1979, and editor of the journal and other association publications. The association meets on the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches and continues to publish two issues of its journal annually. Membership and attendance at meetings declined late in the 1960s, but subsequently rebounded; in 1991 it stood at 550, and registrations at meetings varied from 100 to 150, depending on the location of the spring meeting.
After 1971 the association established new programs to encourage the study of East Texas history and to honor those who do so. The C. K. Chamberlain Award is given for the year's best article in the Journal; up to fifteen fellows are honored for writings on the history of East Texas; the Ralph W. Steen Award honors those who have served the association primarily through activities other than writing; the Lucille Terry Historical Preservation Award, also sponsored by the Texas Forestry Museum, honors outstanding works of historical preservation; and the Ottis Lock Endowment supports awards for outstanding teaching, for the year's best book on East Texas, for an annual scholarship to a student attending an institution in East Texas, and for research grants in the study of East Texas history. In 1991 F. Lee Lawrence, with a generous donation to be matched by other members, challenged the membership to a fund-raising effort to establish a continuing endowment. The East Texas Historical Association also sponsors in-service workshops for teachers in conjunction with the Texas State Historical Association and provides a clearinghouse for information about the history of East Texas.