THE BESTSELLING book Roots, Alex Haley's historical reconstruction of how his family came from relative freedom in Africa to certain slavery in America, and then from slavery to relative freedom today, has spurred many black Americans to think about and search out their own roots.

A few years ago most blacks were either ashamed or afraid to tell the story of their struggle for survival against enormous odds.Their reticence derived in part from the frequent ugliness of their stories.

On these four pages are the true stories of eight Washingtonians who not only survived exploitation but what on to achieve prominence in a world dominated by whites.

Larry Brown's people all come from around Woodward, South Carolina. "They were all country people and they were all religious," says the Redskins' star running back.

He speculates that they were first slaves and then sharecroppers, but information about his family is scarce. He can trace his ancestors on his mother's side of the family back to his great-great-grandparents. All the men were Baptist preachers and at least two of his great-grandmothers were midwives - but they all worked as sharecroppers.

His grandmother used to tell stories of the old days when the women were forced to work in the fields as soon as they had given birth, with the babies on their backs. Larry Brown can remember from his own childhood that "My grandmother would take her straw hat and put it on and pick cotton all day. When you pick cotton all day you are so tired. But still they had to work as servants at night to clothe their bodies." He says that in the 1930s his relatives were paid fifty cents an acre to pick cotton.

Larry Brown's grandparents own their own piece of land now, but when he was a child "they worked somebody else's land. They had maybe ten or twelve cows and they grew cotton and vegetables and watermelon.

"I remember I used to go out and wring the chicken's neck for dinner, but I wouldn't have the courage now. My cousins and I used to raid watermelon patches down there - never our own! - and we used to have pine cone fights in the woods.

"Every Sunday we had to go to church and the reverend often used to come over and eat Sunday dinner. We kids had to wait until he had finished to eat and we only got the pickings. I can remember telling my cousins that the preacher had eaten his fourth piece of chicken."

On his father's side, Larry Brown can trace his relatives back to Zack and Lucy Brown, his great-great-grandparents. They were slaves and had to use their master's name - Black. They took back the name Brown after the Civil War. Zack ran away from his master at one time, but came back, presumably because he couldn't make it to the North.

Larry Brown's father was the first member of his family to go north, looking for jobs with better wages than sharecropping. He got a job in the steel mills in Pennsylvania in 1939, and later he became a baggage man for the Pennsylvania Railroad where he has worked for the past thirty-four years. Brown's mother came north to Cleveland with an aunt. She met his father when she moved to Pittsburgh, where they still live.