Philip Brogdon collects black crimefighters.

The Zulu half of a South African detective team, an Aborigine police-tracker and jet-setter Penny Wanawake who chases murderers for a hobby -- all are fictional characters from Brogdon's collection exhibited this summer at the Martin Luther King Library.

A District resident and the first black member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the foremost Sherlock Holmes society, Brogdon has tracked the evolution of black crimefighters in fiction from the 1920s onward. He sees the roles these black crimefighters play as an evolving social mirror.

"Black detectives didn't come into their own until 1965, with Virgil Tibbs, with the exception of Bonaparte from Australia, but he's at the bottom of the world," said Brogdon, whose collection of 350 books and short stories filled four glass cases on the library's second floor.

"Tibbs triumphed over racism," Brogdon said of the famous fictional Pasadena police detective. John Ball created the character, who was played by Sidney Poitier in the movie "In the Heat of the Night.". Racism "didn't keep him {Tibbs} from doing his job," Brogdon said.

E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the King library's Afro-American Resources Center, thinks Brogdon may be the only collector of fiction starring black detectives. "I haven't heard of anyone else," he said in a telephone interview. Ishmael Reed, an Oakland, Calif., author who may be the foremost practitioner of the experimental mystery novel, also thinks Brogdon's collection may be one of a kind.

"The Tibbs character in 1965 started an onrush of books and short stories about black crimefighters," Brogdon said. This literary branch of detective stories includes private and police detectives, citizens who pursue justice within the law and crimefighters-in-reverse -- citizens who pursue justice outside the law and who usually are killers.

"To my knowledge, the first U.S. black uniformed police officer appeared in 1924 in a short story set in Harlem by Rudolph Fisher, 'The City of Refuge,' " Brogdon said. But the crimefighter in that book, as in others in the 1930s, was restricted to Harlem. "In that story, the criminal was so shocked at seeing a black police officer that he was distracted from escaping and was apprehended. That's how unusual it was to see a black crimefighter then," he said.

Books and stories from Britain, Australia and the Caribbean are part of his 350 works. For example, when Fisher, a black writer, introduced the first U.S. black uniformed police officer, an established white British writer, Eden Phillpotts, introduced Michael Devine, a black detective, in "Three Dead Men." But his black sleuth solved the crime from his armchair. He was insulated from the world..

When Tibbs appeared 40 years later, he freed black detectives in fiction to work outside Harlem. In today's television shows, black crimefighters are heroes, supervisors of heroes or costars. Book spinoffs from these television shows are part of Brogdon's collection.

Most authors of black crimefighting fiction are white. The most enduring exception is the late Chester Himes. His Harlem heros of the pre-Tibbs 1950s and '60s, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, were modeled after two black detectives in Watts. But Himes' heroes stayed in Harlem because black detectives of that era were limited by color and environment.

Novelist Ishmael Reed said he uses the detective novel to expose society's skeletons and to draw on African lore. The crime novel is "a metaphor for persecuted people who are always suspects," he said. It is a literary vehicle that in Himes' hands "became art." "Sherlock Holmes used deductive reasoning, while Chester Himes' detectives used intuitive reasoning or hunches, blood feelings. That's African tradition over Western logic," Reed said.

"The slave committed crime by stealing himself, a property, when he escaped," Reed said.

In the 1970s Radcliff series by Roosevelt Mallory, the hero is a black hit man who kills rival mobsters for the mob. But he is really a vigilante out to destroy all mobsters. Winona Young is an older, black woman who avenges the murder of her husband by white racists, and goes on to avenge other racist murders.

Brogdon, a native Washingtonian who started his collection four years ago, makes two predictions about the future of black crimefighters in fiction: He sees more serious black writers entering the field of the caliber of Percy Spurlark Parker of Chicago, Clifford Mason of New York and Reed; and the emergence of more powerful female black detectives "with just as many idiosyncracies as men."

Merrill Kaege, coordinator of the "Black Detectives" exhibit at the library, wants Brogdon's collection to return in expanded form, possibly for Black History Month in February.