Mr. Bush welcomed black leaders to the East Room of the White House to celebrate black history month.
"Success of freedom on the home front is critical to its success in foreign lands," Mr. Bush said. "As I said in my inaugural address, we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time."
Mr. Bush noted legislation he signed in 2003 to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture within the Smithsonian Institution. The president and his wife, Laura, made a contribution, for an undisclosed amount, to construction of the museum.
"It's important that our children know that there was a time in their nation's history when one in every seven human beings was the property of another," he said, adding that bigotry and discrimination did not end with slavery.
"Americans were still barred by law from hotels and restaurants, made to drink from separate water fountains, forced to sit in the back of a bus — all because of the color of their skin. We need to teach them about the heroes of the civil rights movement, who by their courage and dignity forced America to confront the central defect of our founding."
Those who attended the event included Dorothy Height, 92, who spent 30 years as the president of the National Council of Negro Women: members of the original Tuskegee Airmen, a group of minority pilots who excelled in the era of Jim Crow; Frederick Douglas IV, great-great-grandson of the famed abolitionist, and actress Cicely Tyson.
Mr. Bush's relations with the black community have been strained the past four years. Eleven percent of black voters cast ballots for him in the 2004 election — up from about 7 percent in 2000.
Last month, the president met with the Congressional Black Caucus. The all-Democratic group used its long-awaited meeting to ask Mr. Bush to adopt its agenda for closing racial disparities. Mr. Bush has met three times with the caucus since taking office. The first meeting was shortly after his first inauguration, but the next one didn't come until three years later when caucus members showed up at the White House to urge the administration to preserve President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's rule in Haiti.